Window onto Pain

May 20, 2014 | Nathan Powell

Nate  wrote and performed this piece with the assistance of the ensemble during An Indeterminate Life.  An Indeterminate Life was devised over a period of six months.  Pieces emerged from various training exercises and discussions among the men.

{Nonverbal Shock – Arrest}

{(Table + chair)}

My daughter was 4 years old when I got locked up.  For the next two years, while I fought my case in court, she could only visit me across a stainless steel table that was wider than she was tall.  Visits were less than an hour. {reach across the table and a guard (Nick) comes over and pulls my hand back.) Sit back in chair and talk to audience turning head toward them.}

  Once a week for a few moments I could see the little girl who was suffering because of something I did.  There were no games allowed.  That table was always cold.

{Stand NICK moves chair center facing audience as NATE CONTINUES}

After sentencing I was able to visit with my daughter for more human lengths of time in a venue where hugs were monitored, but O.K., and where we could play games.  When my daughter grabbed a chess set, I remembered when she first asked me to teach her how to play.  We were in Washington Square Park and this old Russian guy with medals and epaulettes was playing a young black guy with dreads.  The intensity of their game mesmerized her.  She said, “Daddy I want to play that game.”

I can still see the pieces shifting on that board–a bishop pinning a knight, pawns trying to advance, a castle stands in front of a King.  My daughter is watching every move trying to connect the tension between the 2 men with the tension between the pieces on the board.

Just a second guys– I’m sorry–this isn’t in the script , but its not everyday we get a clear picture and this theatre group is about transformation–so bear with me.

Think of this as surviving Prison 102.

Question:  did anyone you grew up with get locked up?

{All cast responds with names if they have any–David has 20–Michael says “everyone,” etc.}

How many was that?

There is something wrong with this chessboard.  You can’t see it, but the evenness is an illusion.  The board is slanted.  Slanted so that some of us are born likelier to slide off the board into prison.  {Three cast members “slide off the board” to stage right.}

When I took the SAT’s, the boy on my right went to M. I.T., the girl on my left went to Harvard.  I got off to a slow start, so I went to Columbia.  I never knew anyone who went to prison.  I believed everyone in prison deserved to be there and somehow chose to be there.

I’m here now.  I wrestle with this sense of wrongness.  Maybe you do too.  I’m not saying we’re not responsible for what we’ve done.  We are.

But does that mean our mistakes permanently define us?  More importantly–WHO MADE THIS BORARD ANYWAY!  How is it possible when you’re a kid 9 or 10 years old–this group of kids has the same chance of gong to prison that your group of kids has of going to college?

Is there something in the water?  Or is it in the board itself?

We–all of us–don’t question the game of life we try to fit into like we really need to.

We’re too busy trying to get to the next square, or just keeping the one we’re on to think about whether the white pieces have a better chance of staying on the board.  After all, we didn’t make it, right?  I got my square.

But can’t we remake it?

If you think there’s nothing wrong with this board you must believe we are bad men who were bad kids and nothing can be done.

If you see the potential for us to transform, to learn. To develop as human beings–THEN THE BOARD MUST BE WRONG AND WE NEED YOUR HEL TO CHANGE IT.

All right guys, back on the board. {Those that slide off, return to the playing area of the stage. Nate resumes his piece about his daughter.}

I was teaching my daughter how to play chess before I got locked up.  My wife told me she hadn’t played since.  So when she set up the pieces in all their proper places, I was a little surprised.  “When is the last time you played?” I asked her.  “With you”, she replied.  Then she confidently moved her knight out {Leroy takes two steps forward and one to his right or left} and smiled up at me.   

She pushed her pawns {Meat and Blaize take a step forward}, edged her bishop into position and castled {Judy and  David perform this move}.  She clapped her hands when she took my knight with her queen.  She didn’t forget a single solitary thing!  She said, “Why are you crying Daddy?”  All I could do was smile.  I never knew there could be so much pain.