July 24, 2009
Something amazing happened last week. To tell you about it means I need to introduce you to my brother, Buddy.
Buddy is my youngest brother. He is 4 ½-years younger than me and consequently, I have always been his second mom, whether either of us liked it. Buddy is caring and kind. He is smart and handsome. He’s funny and talented. He’s also a convicted felon.
Incarcerated since 2002, in many ways, Buddy has grown up in prison. Watching him being convicted and sent to prison was – until my mom’s death – the most painful experience of my life. But we’ve survived it and this week I realized just how much Buddy has grown from it. In fact, I am not sure I have ever seen him more excited than he was when I saw him in prison on Thursday night
After Mom’s death, Buddy was transferred from the Southeast Correctional Facility in Licking, Mo., to the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green. Upon his transfer, Buddy was reunited with a friend, Rodney, who thankfully was acclimated to NECC. As far as I can tell, Rodney has been an incredibly positive influence in Buddy’s life. With his encouragement, Buddy became active in PPF (Prison Performing Arts - check it out online).
When Buddy first told me that he was going to take part in the program, I was shocked but thrilled. I grew up in theatre, speech and debate, but as best as I can remember, Buddy never had an interest in any of it. I loved the idea that he was trying new things and taking advantage of the few growing opportunities provided to him through the Department of Corrections. What neither of us expected was that he would love it too!
This semester-long program concludes with three live performances of a play. Early in the semester, Buddy told me he only had a small role in this Shakespearean play and that it wouldn’t even be worth me making the trip for the "public" performance. But as the curtain call got closer, I began to hear an excitement in Buddy’s voice that was contagious. He was alive in a way that I hadn’t seen him be in years and it was incredibly exciting. You couldn’t have kept me from seeing for myself what had caused this intellectual awakening and personal exploration. Deep down, I don’t think Buddy wanted me to miss it either.
I had no idea what I was in for. I never could have imagined. It exceeded every expectation I had and then some.
I arrived in the normal waiting room and found it filling with other cast member’s family, as well as others that I eventually determined are likely financial supporters of the program. Everyone was friendly and excited. As we made our way through the prison yard, I got to see for the first time where my brother lived; where he runs, plays softball, handball and basketball. I saw the cafeteria and his housing unit. Just being allowed to have this insight into his life was the worth the trip.
I quickly recognized Agnes, the director of PPF and the play. Although I had never seen her, I could tell by her demeanor that she was the woman in charge. Once we all got seated, Agnes called her company to the stage and my heart began to pound. There he was! Dressed in a Hawaiian print shirt and black pants, it was wonderful to see him in something other than his gray jumpsuit that he’s required to wear when I visit him. What was even better was this HUGE smile on his face. It was a smile filled with pride – a pride I haven’t seen since before the arrest that turned his life upside down.
Agnes explained the play and then called her company to their places. The set wasn’t elaborate but it didn’t matter. Once the actors began filling the stage, I was mesmerized. Even with Shakespeare’s challenging language and dialogue, these actors brought their roles to life. They weren’t just good – they were incredible. Obviously Agnes’s company was full of talent and Agnes knew what to do with it.
And then my reserved brother who rarely draws attention to himself, stepped out on stage singing and dancing. Then he was juggling! Then he was leading the crowd in a hilarious rendition of Who Let the Dogs Out (you needed to be there!). He was the comedic relief of the play and was able to take a smaller role and leave a huge impression on the audience. Last time I checked, that’s the sign of a good actor!
A good actor… my brother… a good actor. Wow.
After the play, the company fielded questions from the audience. Being new to the experience, I had a million questions but didn’t have the nerve to even open my mouth. I wanted to ask simple questions like, “How much fun was that?” and “Don’t you love being treated with dignity and professionalism?” Instead, audience members asked compelling questions about how the actors developed their characters and how they enjoyed interpreting Shakespeare. They answered eloquently and freely with confidence and passion for the art.
Afterwards, I got to meet Agnes, Rodney and other cast members and their families. It was the best cast party I have ever attended. As I said goodbye and started the drive home, I let go of the tears I’d been holding back. They weren’t tears of sadness, but of pure joy. I saw my brother with a restored sense of dignity, with a new awareness of how drama can awaken parts of one’s soul that we don’t even know exists. I saw him united with a group of talented men for a common purpose. I saw him excited about giving of himself.
I also saw a group of theatre professionals, led by Agnes, who looked at these 25 men not as convicted felons but as her professional company of actors. They have a heart for these men. They have a heart for my brother and this immediately made me have a heart for them. To them all, I am incredibly thankful.
Thanks to them, I drove to Bowling Green expecting to see my brother in his first play. What I saw was a performance that defined hope and gave everyone present inspiration for the future.
“We are full of joy even when we suffer. We know that our suffering gives us the strength to go on. 4 The strength to go on produces character. Character produces hope. 5 And hope will never disappoint us.”(Romans 5:3-5)