Watching “An Indeterminate Life” While Sitting Among Its Actors

In late May, the men of PPTG watched the DVD of their latest performance, An Indeterminate Life.  Adam, who had yet to join the group when this show was developed and performed, shares his reaction to seeing the piece in this,  our most recent blog post. You can view the “sizzle reel” from An Indeterminate Life in our video section.

It’s Friday, May 22, 11 PM, which is past my bedtime, but my head is swirling with thoughts of this evening, and if I don’t get them into my typewriter, sleep will prove difficult. When I walked into the classroom shortly after 7 PM, greeted by a characteristically warm Bruce and saw the TV set up in the corner, I realized how much I’d been looking forward to tonight. We watched “Indeterminate Life,” the group’s 2014 production, something I knew would be a quality performance because I know these characters, but it still managed to impress.

Since the running time was ninety minutes and the Big Machine, like time and tide, waits for no man, and would spit us out of the room in a little over ninety minutes, we got right down to business. We did an abbreviated opening, performed only one Tao breath, shut off some lights, arranged our chairs in front of the TV, and settled in. As it happened, there was a spot in back, which suited me just fine, Adam the doodler, the taker of notes. It felt like I was live-streaming the event, but in a most analog manner, occasionally watching the watchers, checking for their reactions to themselves.

On screen, the uproarious Davi opened the production, doing eight minutes of shtick as if he were a comedian in the Catskills of yore. There was a seamless handoff to Nick, who, sitting next to me, squirmed upon watching his performance. That’s my M.O…, often cringing at the jackassery that passes for my time in the limelight.

Leroy smiled approvingly at his piece, and for good reason: there was this neat little reveal, his “piece” was actually his time-piece. Granted, I am no authority on theater, but “Indeterminate Life” was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Twelve minutes in, and I began to feel that this was like seeing NPR’s ”This American Life” and “The Moth” being acted out.

Leroy smoothly handed off to Demetrius, who gave his lessons on doing time. Mike brought us to the zoo, then poignantly likened it to the prison tour groups that make him feel like a caged animal—scanning my peers, we all felt the same. When Nate took the stage, he transported us to the stone tables of Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, as he taught his daughter chess. In and expository aside, Nate had a great line, how one of his high school classmates went to M.I.T, another went to Harvard: “I got off to a slow start… I went to Columbia.”

An hour in, and I’d seen all the Old Guard – Allison, Davi, Demetrius, Judy (in a duet with Nate, no less), Leroy, Mike, Nate, and Nick –along with Blaze and Sandra, who are no longer with the group. There was even a current volunteer, Chris, who was in the audience. Everyone except Bruce, but that makes sense. During our weekly meetings, he will coach us in private, “editing” our work into something so much better. He’s the unmoved mover, nowhere visible, but his influence visible everywhere.

The pacing and structure of the production was spot on. At no point did it drag, and the arc of these interconnected pieces was taut. The subject matter was personal and relevant: getting arrested, adapting to prison, discussing our worst acts with family, struggling to maintain family bonds, struggling to retain our humanity in these soulless places.

And talk about pros – after PPTG alum Shane was transferred to Sing-Sing, mere days before the performance, Nick picked up his lines, and performed a moving ode to Trayvon Martin. Or, mike, who forcefully broke down the chain of command from public to politician to bureaucrat, all the way down to the lower echelon man in direct control of us; did I hear a note of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”? In a moving set piece, Demetrius and Blaze alternated short monologues contrasting the very different worlds in which they grew up, highlighting how, in this land of opportunity, we’re all created equal, but some are more equal than others. The most involved staging came at the end, as Davi sung (like an R&B crooner!) about a bus ride to prison, while the cast played the free-worlders outside the window, moving about their happy lives, then freezing in place for Davi’s chorus.

To think that I’m a part of the Phoenix Players, this group that proved capable of producing such superlative work. I keep coming back to Demetrius’s ability to deliver powerful emotions while not indulging in sentimentality. Describing a scene that could’ve ended badly, he said, “Lucky for him I had no luck.” That’s good stuff. When it comes time for me to perform, I hope that my pieces are as meaningful, that I can bring the emotion.

But I know I’m in good hands, between my peers and the volunteers. It’s on their shoulders that we now stand, and I see an even better production on the horizon. As Ira Glass, of “ This American Life,” would say, “ Stay—with—us.”