Reaction to The Strength of Our Convictions - Paul Sawyer

Describing what one brings back from a Phoenix Players performance, a person is apt to feel blocked at first. The experience is apt to be overwhelming – and after the first intensity has dimmed, so much remains in the memory (as audience members were predicting tonight).  Tonight was possibly the deepest and most intense of the productions I’ve experienced (though I wouldn’t want to argue about which one was the best).   The stories and performances present life behind bars with a tremendous immediacy that intensifies as the evening progresses. Separated spatially, the audience and performers faced each other, the concept of “criminal” dividing us like the Biblical sheep and goats, wheat and tares. Like the dancers in the Broadway musical A Chorus Line, who line up on the testing-line of stardom, you told your stories from the side of the condemned – those who failed the test.  And then the distance and distinctions dissolve. The total show works like an extended version of the “Soundscape” piece, putting the viewer behind bars with the players.   It’s like being exposed to a solar storm that sears the mind and heart. Certain lines or incidents could bring sudden tears of pity or sadness, but for me, the weeping didn’t really stop – on the inside at least – as all the possible emotions, including joy, blended. Though your goal is to bear witness from the inside to those on the outside – to us, the unsentenced, the free – we’re not a separate consciousness either.  Whose pain is this, whose guilt?  Yours –  or ours?  There’s no escape from this knowledge – but no one wants to escape, or to be anywhere else in the world but in this intense space of shared passion  (in the Biblical sense of the word).
What stood out? For starters, the “overture” of one-liners, spoken into the air at the entrance like an auditory collage.  Some were hard-hitting (“Why was I the bad thing that happened to good people?”), some were ominous (“Why is grandpa crying?”), some were thought-provoking (“A lot of people say  it’s the fault of the system”); all would return by the end, clarified or transformed in some cases into horror.  Adam’s macabre wit, that turns humans into insignia (Dr Jelly) and insects into humans. (The jokey cockroaches – humans dancing sideways, with arms cupped like antennae – are the standard [but real] cliches for grubby living conditions, but they also intertwine with the word-machine and with Adam’s thoughts, becoming emblems of the mind’s ability to use farce as a defense against fear or despair.)  Mark’s quiet thoughts about ageing – which happens to all of us, if we live long enough, except that ageing for him is the long journey through a life sentence.  (What does the experience of time mean to him that it doesn’t mean to other oldsters, like me?)  Sheldon’s re-experiencing of his sister’s rape. Jack’s transmogrification of “enemies” and “heroes,” out of comic books into the “real world,” where they blend and shift until they define the tormenting ambiguity of self and world.  Demetrius’s’ profound meditation on the meanings of individual and systemic guilt.  (“Some say it’s all the fault of a system”:  the line is crossed by names of the jailed, represented by a parade of actors who, like human negatives of Christ’s loaves and fishes, seem to multiply without end.)

What follows is a general response, based on everything I’ve seen by the Phoenix Players over several years:

“When was the last time you told the truth – about anything?” Truth is never easy, but they may have the least to conceal who have been labeled and placed according to the worst mistake they’ve made – whose guilt is inscribed in the number they wear, the color of their clothing, the place where they live. (The fact that Elise’s and Jack’s stories blended with the rest of yours, even though they aren’t in jail, showing that your lives aren’t wholly Other after all, and that any one can learn the discipline of telling the truth through performing it.)

For this reason, a Phoenix Players production always has an aspect of confession, of painful truth proclaimed openly, before strangers.  But confession as such is not the aim, nor is the aim to testify about victimage –  though the evening was about that as well.  The stated goal of PPTG is to witness, in order to combat the social stereotyping that has become part of the meaning of mass punishment.   After the show, your comments about the writing process left out the place of the audience in order to talk about writing for yourself – being true to your experience, and following your instincts as performers rather than guessing about the wishes and comfort level of the visitors.  I agree with this purpose, as a visitor.  Breaking through the wall constructed by the society of mass incarceration is the fundamental aim of all the prison “work” we do, both those of us on the “giving” and those of you on the “receiving” end.  Dr King pointed out that  the other word for “separation” is “death” (in his time, the social term was “segregation,” which in the Afrikaans language is “apartheid”).  Segregation is the fundamental aspect of imprisonment, despite whatever else – punishment, solitude, hopelessness – inheres in it; in Norway, where the island-prison looks like a resort, the punishment of separation is still felt to be severe.  With segregation comes the Stigma – the criminal-justice version of damnation. In the age of the gulag, criminals are not just people convicted of crime; they’re a permanent status; they are the not-us, the negations, the social others; material for enclosure, erasure, de-humanization.  In order to assert their presence and their humanity, PPTG breaks down (temporarily) the physical walls between the free world and the incarcerated world, but also (for a longer time) the invisible walls of isolation and alienation, which cause the Stigma to flourish.

This confrontation also puts individual crimes next to the social crime of mass incarceration, which the audience now represents. In the Marxian view of society, the fundamental dynamic is exploitation and struggle; one person exists to serve the interests of another, great wealth grows like a cancer on great poverty, and human relationships are fundamentally concealed relationships of guilt and injustice.  This is not wrong, but the actual connections aren’t always this direct.  Not every person’s labor contributes to my gain; not every person labors  (the tragedy of our present system is that too many don’t labor because they’re socially “useless.”) Nevertheless, it remains true that we aren’t selected equally for social success.  I didn’t have to grow up in the welfare hotels where Ray protected his mother from drugs; but he did.   Most people born to success in our society don’t see this other life. As in the sun’s home galaxy, a cosmic cloud runs through the center of their sight, creating a blank space where millions of stars would otherwise be glittering.  It’s important for everyone to understand their complicity in the social crime, however indirect. Just as you are repaying your debt to society, it’s up to us to repay the debt of the social crime to its victims.

But this too is not the ultimate goal of PPTG, as I experienced it the other night.  Your audience knows about guilt, your audience has been working to give back.  We also know that ultimately, we can never give back:  a graduate instructor of CPEP calls the social crime “the unpayable debt.” The profoundest experience for an audience member is not just to see how we benefit from the unpayable debt but to learn who we are.  Dr King said we are bound together in a web of mutuality.  If he’s right, then we are, I am, not individuals ultimately but moments in a web of relations that radiate outwards to the limits of the social world.  No one who truly takes in your performance can avoid this realization breaking upon them. When you seared away the mist of social ignorance, we saw your faces, not our own, and we lost our own identities momentarily in yours; but it’s the miraculous potential of art that one’s own world comes clearer and deeper through immersion in the lives – real or imaginary, whispered or performed – of others. We didn’t just watch you through a window, on the other side of the wall of incarceration: the window was also a mirror. We saw ourselves.  But we saw ourselves within a frame of reference so unifying that individuals appear as unbounded parts of a whole – of which your individual stories are fragments.  This awareness isn’t some mystical loss of concreteness, wrapped in a cloud of divinity: it’s the most concrete possible grasp of reality, because it allows each of us to know, in the fullest way, who we are.  Where do we stand?  Where do we come from?  What do we share, what do we owe, what power do we have to help or harm?  What sides can we choose?  What did we come here to do?  For the complacent, this kind of awareness entails harsh truths –  narcissism can’t survive it – but it’s also said that the truth sets us free.  I’ve chosen that word deliberately.  What you folks have given us, ultimately, is freedom.
So how do we give back?