7/1/2016 – GUEST BLOGGER BETTY MAY – WRITING ABOUT PRISON LIFE
The phone rings.
“Is this Betty May?”
“And you write and direct plays?”
“Can you write a comedy about life in prison?”
In 2008 a group of women serving life sentences in a maximum-security prison wrote a play designed to warn teenagers and young adults about the consequences of poor choices. Their efforts were not well received; the young people were disinterested and bored. The women decided the indifferent response was due to the serious nature of the play: “Kids want funny.”
Thus the rather bizarre phone call.
I went into the prison and talked to the women. We talked for hours. Finally I told them: “You don’t need comedy; you need honesty. The young people need to see themselves in you, and you in them.” I asked the women to start writing. “Write about anything,” I told them. “Your memories, regrets, dreams, hopes for the future…”
And the women wrote. Pages and pages of eloquence. So much talent and creativity. So much untapped and imprisoned brilliance. I spent nights in tears, reading their despair and hearing their hopelessness. The writings were heartfelt and tragic and led to an ironic twist: fearing the gut-wrenching agony might cause the audience to throw up by the second scene, I had to add some comic relief. I wrote a rap, a scene comparing prison to high school, and a couple of poems. The play, FACES, was born.
But something else happened as well. At our first meeting the women could barely look me in the eye. I was an outsider—another person to sit in judgment. They had been beaten down by an uncaring society and a broken system. It was as though their humanity had been ripped away, leaving husks of the women they once were.
As they wrote, and as they heard their words of torment spoken aloud, the women changed. They took pride in their creativity and in their talent. They walked taller and sat straighter. They became passionate about the young people they were trying to help. What was a simple play became a metaphor for their lives—a way of being part of the world even as they were locked away.
I changed, too. What started as just another theatrical gig became a focal part of my life and the women became far more than actors. I am now an advocate for judicial and penal reform, testifying before judicial and legislative committees and conducting workshops for at-risk young people.
As a high school teacher I have seen the effect of the written word, but it was never so powerfully displayed as in this maximum-security prison with people who had been living lives devoid of hope. The women reached into their souls and rediscovered their humanity.
The production ran for two years in the prison with a series of performances every few months. More than 1000 people viewed the play; they left inspired by the women’s talent, courage, and desire to help others.
The phenomenon didn’t stop at the prison. I was invited to direct FACES with a company of professional actors at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The women couldn’t attend, but they knew their voices would be heard beyond the prison walls.
All this because they had the courage to write—to reveal themselves. To let people know they are more than the crimes they had committed. That they are human beings, worthy of respect, deserving of our compassion and caring.
They are more than prison inmates. They are writers.
For further information: bettymayauthor.com, firstname.lastname@example.org