The Prison Creative Arts Project has been running theater, writing and visual art workshops in prisons and juvenile detention centers throughout Michigan since its inception in 1990. One of the goals of PCAP’s work is to bring the incarcerated back into communication with a society from which their voices have been effectively erased. The Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, taking place right now in the Media Union Gallery on North Campus, is our most comprehensive public event. It is a showcase of the talent, drive, passion, pain, regret and humanity that we find in the people we work with and that inspire and compel us to continue doing this work. In conjunction with the exhibition this year, we are presenting something new and equally compelling: The performance entitled “When Can We Talk?”
Over the years PCAP has accumulated a tremendous trove of stories, stories of the men and women, girls and boys with whom we have collaborated and our own stories of dealing with the triumphs and heartbreaks that occur in this work. We felt a need to communicate these stories somehow, to put them in front of communities throughout Michigan. To that end five PCAP members, including myself, gathered with five former prisoners to create an original theater piece about incarceration and its connection to our own lives. The play was developed under the direction of Gillian Eaton, formerly of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The show that we created together is entirely autobiographical, about the difficult and painful choices each of the former prisoners have been faced with before, during and after incarceration, and about the effect that the work has had on each of us as workshop facilitators and human beings. In the nine months that our theater group has been together, we have dealt with all the struggles that people face when coming out of prison. We lost one member of our company to a drug relapse. An actor left an abusive home situation. Cars broke down or were crashed. Jobs were found, lost, then found again. Babies were born. Actors found themselves desperate for money. At our last rehearsal, one of our actors arrived on crutches. He’s uncertain how long it will be before he can return to work and he has a son due in two months.
The title of the performance is the goal of the performance. We are starting a conversation. There are 50,000 men and women incarcerated in adult state facilities in Michigan. Through this performance, through the prisoner art exhibition, these men and women come back into relation with society, so that they are being remembered and engaged with as human beings. This feels imperative to us at a moment when our prisons are filled to maximum capacity and many prisoners are coming home to a terrible economy and retrenching social services.
“When Can We Talk?” is powerful. The power comes from its honesty. There is a great element of risk in what the contributors have shared in creating the performance. The difficult issues engaged by the performance are not abstracted; they are the things that are happening to the people in the play, happening right now. I’ve also been astonished by the way that Dave, Touch