Law and Order: Ex-Convicts Tell Their Stories on Stage

Article excerpt

JIDDU KRISHNAMURTI, THE INDIAN PHILOSOPHER, said, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." Prison has been said to be a reflection of society's failures. If that's the case, America isn't doing so well. The United States leads the world in prison populations, with 2.3 million people incarcerated. There is a disproportionate percentage of people of color in prison. Black men make up the highest percentage (35.4 percent) even though they make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. population. And then there's the economic side of the story. Michigan spends nearly $2 billion on its corrections system. Gov. Jennifer Granholm told the Detroit News, "We spend more money on prisons than we do on higher education, and that has got to change."

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How can theatre possibly attempt to address the awful truths of crime and punishment? Enter The Castle, a play conceived and directed by former theatrical press agent David Rothenberg. The play's regal title refers to the New York City residential facility run by the Fortune Society that helps former inmates adjust to life after prison. In this drama verite, four real-life ex-convicts share their tales of privation, crime, imprisonment and redemption.

"We're trying to put a face on a population of people. The issues are implicit," Rothenberg says over the phone. "I've been involved with this since the inception. I would go to these community meetings every Thursday night at the Fortune Society and got to know some of the residents." (Residents of the Castle use Fortune Society classrooms for sessions devoted to career development and counseling.) "As I got to know them I would arrange for them to see plays. Over time, I learned their stories. So one day I joked, 'You're more interesting than the plays we're seeing!'"

The stories Rothenberg heard are indeed remarkable. For example, Casimiro Torres was once a homeless teen sleeping in Manhattan's old Dollar Movie Theatre. That same location in Midtown Manhattan is now New World Stages--where The Castle plays. "Is that not a story?!" Rothenberg exclaims. Angel Ramos entered prison Illiterate, but in his 30 years of incarceration he not only learned to read and write but also developed a passion for Quaker life. His one-year anniversary away from prison also marked his Off-Broadway debut.

"In the year we've been performing, I have watched the four performers be almost transformed by their confidence and pride in participating in such an important and unusual adventure," producer Eric Krebs says. "When they perform, and especially when they speak in the talkbacks that follow each show, they are magnificently poised teacher/professionals." During talkbacks, information about the Fortune Society is distributed to the audience, which has resulted in some generous gifts to the not-for-profit. …