Phoenixes rising: Auburn prison theater group performs for rapt audience

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AUBURN | The sight of prison inmates performing choreography to songs about their uniform pockets or their tasteless food might seem reserved for a show like “Orange is the New Black.”

But that’s what an audience of about 60 saw in the chapel of Auburn Correctional Facility Thursday night. Taking place was a performance by the prison’s eight-man theater group, the Phoenix Players, titled “This Incarcerated Life: The Foundation of a Pipe Dream.”

The product of a year of workshopping, writing and rehearsing, the show consisted of 24 vignettes, most of which were conceived and performed by one of the Phoenix members. It also included pieces by Michael Rhynes, the group’s 2009 co-founder who was transferred to Attica in the fall, as well as Phil Miller, a member who was paroled earlier this year.

The performance was dedicated to Rhynes and former Cornell University theater professor Stephen Cole, the group’s first facilitator, who passed away in 2015. Cole recruited fellow Cornell theater faculty member Bruce Levitt to also work with the Phoenix Players, and Levitt was there Thursday, beaming behind the chapel’s pews as the group took the stage.

Through theater, Levitt said, the inmates chisel at the stereotypes surrounding them, revealing that there’s more to them than their transgressions and, in the process, plotting their own transformation. They wrote 120 to 130 pieces for “This Incarcerated Life,” he said, before paring them down.

“Everybody contributes their own pieces,” Levitt said, “but they also help the other guys in the group hone and refine both the text and the performance.”

Though bookended by whimsical song-and-dance numbers, “This Incarcerated Life” delivered reflective looks from the Phoenix Players both within and without. They took the stage with infectious smiles, clad in polo shirts of different bold colors. The chapel was humid with unusually warm May air.

First on stage was David Bendezu, 29, the only one of the night’s performers who was one of the original five Phoenix Players. Arrested for second-degree murder at the age of 17, Bendezu thanked the group for giving him “the opportunity to relive my youth. … The ability to act and play games in the most unlikely place to act and play games.”

Together, the pieces of “This Incarcerated Life” formed a collage depicting just that: the inmates’ mystified lives in prison and the ones they mourn outside of it, as well as the internal and external forces that conspired to put them there.

The latter was a focus of first-time Phoenix performer Sheldon P. Johnson, 41, serving “a disparaging 50-year determinate sentence for non-homicidal offenses,” the show program’s said. “Civil Disobedience” found him echoing the Black Lives Matter movement with a slam poetry-style screed that spanned the Tuskegee syphilis experiment to Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson. With a refrain of “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the piece culminated in Johnson, with his hands up, being shot.

Earlier, though, in “Rubik’s Cube,” Johnson examined his own role in his incarceration in equally poetic terms.

“I’m tired of crying granite tears that roll and stumble, breaking everything in their path,” he said.

Early in the show, Leroy Lebron Taylor, 41, recounted first entering Auburn Correctional Facility for his second-degree murder sentence in “Acts of Kindness, Part One.” With its low ceilings and narrow hallways, he said the prison didn’t feel like “the big house.”

“Personal space is nonexistent here,” he said.

Later, in “Part Two,” Taylor told the story of a blanket he knitted at the prison that’d find its way into the lap of his then-wife’s 88-year-old grandmother. She was never told the blanket’s origin, Taylor said, because of her prejudice toward “them blacks.”

Five years later, per her request, she was buried with that very blanket.

“I was able to provide her solace,” Taylor said, “thus conquering the walls and barriers that tried, and failed, to isolate her.”

Some of Phoenix Players focused their pieces on what took them to Auburn. For first-time performer Adam Roberts, 39, it was the heroin addiction that caused him to kill his parents in 1999 when they took him to their Woodstock vacation home to get their son clean. Three days later, Roberts burned down the home — his parents’ bodies inside — to hide the crime.

In “Looking Good,” Roberts described himself during his heroin addiction as a duck peacefully floating above the water, but “paddling furiously” underneath.

What Roberts referred to in the piece as the Phoenix Players’ “theater nerdery” was the subject of an audience Q-and-A after the show. Several in the pews thanked the group members for sharing and expressing themselves — fulfilling Rhynes’ foundational belief that theater allows inmates to be not just actors in their personal transformation, but writers of it.

One audience member, Baltimore teacher Jessica Heley, a former Cornell student of Levitt’s, said the performance helped lift her spirits after one of her students was arrested earlier this week.

“You feel like a positively amazing embodiment that a person is not their crime,” she said.

Taylor, speaking after the show, said such responses tell him the Phoenix Players continued to realize their transformative purpose with “This Incarcerated Life.”

“I felt very prepared and willing to share myself, to get positive energy and to give it back,” he said. “It sounds like we changed a lot of people’s lives tonight.”

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net.