March 5, 2010
Sometimes inspiration comes in the most unusual places and a sense of belonging comes from the least likely people.
This was the week of the Academy Awards and Oscar buzz has been bountiful. But far, far away from the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood’s red carpet, I witnessed the real performance of the year. My Oscar goes to my brother, Buddy, and the entire Prison Performing Arts cast of Stalag 17.
Stalag 17 is a once-Broadway play adapted into a 1953 war film about a group of American airmen held in a German World War II prisoner of war camp. On this particular March night, Stalag 17 became a story of hope, community and the promise of a better tomorrow.
Last July, I wrote (Held in Heaven's Hands: July 2009) about my first exposure to Prison Performing Arts (PPA). It was a night I will never forget. My reserved brother, who had never shown any interest in any theatre, awakened a part of him neither of us knew existed. The experience was empowering and encouraging for everyone involved.
There was never a question about Buddy continuing in the PPA once it resumed. The experience changed him. It made him realize that life is full of opportunities to touch people and be touched – even in prison. It seemed to change his perspective on engaging in and building community.
I couldn’t wait to see the Northeast Correctional Facility company of actors on stage again. And I couldn’t wait for my grandma and aunt to see it as well. Since my mom’s death, these two women have been a pillar of strength for me and my brothers. I was excited for them to see how their encouragement of Buddy has been an investment that allows him to encourage others.
When we arrived at the prison, I immediately began to see familiar faces; family members of other cast members and supporters of the program. I found myself wondering how this concrete structure surrounded in fences topped with barbed wire had went from feeling cold and horrifying to now somewhat, well, comfortable. I never thought in a million years that I would grow comfortable visiting this place. When I first started coming there, the echo of the closing doors haunted me. The thought of my brother being stripped and searched before and after he visited with me outraged me. The reality that he was seen as “one of them” by the guards who work there, by the State of Missouri, by the rest of the world – it broke my heart and physically repulsed me.
Looking back, I realize now that my black and white thinking hadn’t prepared me for my brother’s imprisonment. Life used to be simple in my head; bad people did bad things. Bad people went to prison. My little brother, full of boyish charm and a good heart, wasn’t the sort of person who spends years in prison. Was it possible that good people do bad things and as a consequence end up in prison? Or is it possible that God was calling me to open my eyes, deal with my prejudices and allow my heart to be transformed?
This process didn’t come easy. It came from story after story of people impacting Buddy’s life – people who looked past his prison garb to see someone uniquely talented and worthy of being loved. Agnes, the director of PPA, is one of those special people. She doesn’t just see the best in my brother. She sees it in every man who walks into her class. I see her heart for these men in how she speaks to them, how she speaks of them and in the sacrifices she makes for them. She makes me want to be like her.
When we arrived to the activity room that had been transformed into the set of Stalag 17, I hurried to pick up the programs for the evening. It was several pages typed and very professionally put together – just like everything Agnes does, I suspect. Along with a list of the cast and information on the play and PPA, the program had a short bio of each actor. I cheated and skipped past everyone until I found my brother’s. As I read his bio, I got a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. In it, he dedicated his performance to me and thanked me for being his cheerleader.
I was humbled and emotional. I don’t feel worthy of his gratitude, but I’m thankful for it all the same. This opportunity is a good one for Buddy in so many ways and I’m just proud to be a part of it.
The show opens and like the performance I attended last summer, I am amazed. These guys are funny, talented and courageously entertaining. I recognize most of the cast from the Shakespearean performance. I smile as Rodney hits the stage. Rodney is one of those people, like Ms. Agnes, that understands the value of community. He recognizes the importance of being synergistically connected and thankfully, he’s helped open Buddy’s eyes to it too. Last semester, Rodney convinced my timid brother to come give PPA a chance to change his life. Excited by the opportunity to transform himself and move others through art, this semester Buddy brought along his friend, Jesse.
When Buddy hits the stage, I can’t help but stare at him. I try to tell myself to stop, but I can’t help it. I don’t want him to make eye contact with me because I’m afraid if he does, I’ll burst into tears. I’m so proud of him that I can barely contain it.
After the performance, there is an opportunity for the audience to ask questions of the cast. I love this part almost as much as the play itself. Here I get a chance to understand what it is that really motivates a group of prisoners who are very different to come together in such a unique way. Even the warden spoke and offered his praise. He joked that they don’t like to use the E word, but that PPA offers a great escape from the every day prison life.
I have thought about his comment a lot since then. I hope that PPA offers more than just an escape from prison life. I hope it offers an escape to freedom – freedom that moves beyond the walls of the prison as these men someday transition to a life full of opportunities. I hope it breeds a confidence that will serve each of them well, both today and tomorrow.
As the evening came to a close, we were all served delicious and humongous servings of cake. It was better than any birthday or wedding cake I’ve ever eaten. Maybe it was the occasion; eating cake in my brother’s honor. Or maybe it was the feeling of community that permeated the room. Mike, who served me cake, knew my name and all about my running and writing. His interest in my ordinary life made me feel special, as if what I do matters. Then there was the visit with Rodney’s parents, who I’d met at the last performance. Seeing them again felt like visiting old friends. It was a good feeling. I loved it.
I also visited with Jesse’s family and met Ms. Beasley, who supervises Buddy’s daily work in the activity’s building. It was hard for me to imagine her in the cold, blue, standard uniform for DOC officers. I didn’t want to imagine it either. She was beautiful in her pink sweater and her generous spirit showed through. This wasn’t her shift. She wasn’t there working; she was there encouraging. I loved her for that.
Buddy told me later that the assistant warden wrote each of the actors in the play a letter congratulating them on a wonderful performance. She also put a copy of the letters in their “files.” She didn’t have to do either of those things, but she did. I love her for doing so.
It’s nights like this one that remind me that God wired us all for a relationship with Him and with others. For lots of people, whether they are in prison or not, building relationships like these is difficult, at best. Creating relationships where individuals can accomplish things that on their own is impossible is a gift. I love it that we got to be blessed by this gift. It helped me realize that I’m growing more comfortable with the prison because with the help of PPA, I’m seeing that we are all just people. Not that must separates us. Not nearly as much as I once thought.