As We Emerge
Plainly dressed men of color filled six of the seven black, metal folding chairs placed in a semi- circle inside Quinnipiac’s intimate Theater Arts Center. Just one remained empty, for Rodney Andre, 43 of West Haven, who had every intention to be present, but other circumstances did not allow him to attend that weekend. So, the empty seat remained, a reminder of the obstacles any person can face, particularly men of color from inner city neighborhoods, all of whom, were formerly incarcerated. Andre’s story was still shared by associate vice president and chief diversity officer at Quinnipiac University as well as conceiver of the play, Don C. Sawyer. The production put on by Shakeem Anderson, Rodney Andre, Santos Colon, Roger Johnson, Maurice Keitt, Don Williams and Leighton J. Johnson is not your typical theater experience but a culmination of monologues, deeply personal to each of the men that sat before the audience. Each man had his own experience to share and as the lights dimmed they stood one, sometimes two at a time, to share their story. Eventually, all stories became one.
The production was a collaboration between EMERGE, Connecticut Inc., the Quinnipiac Theater Program, the Quinnipiac Department of Cultural and Global Engagement and the Quinnipiac Prison Project. The men signed up to participate through the enterprise EMERGE Connecticut, Inc., which helps formerly incarcerated men and women integrate into society. Anderson, Andre, Colon, Johnson, Keitt, Williams and J. Johnson are seeking to establish themselves in every facet, a right they were never provided, not even in childhood. Some of the men have been apart of EMERGE for months, while others, years. EMERGE, provides its members, both men and women, though only men participated in the play, with “methods, strategies and disciplines of business, and the power and opportunities of the marketplace to advance its social impact,” as explained on the organization’s website. Integrating into society is a daunting task for many people formerly incarcerated, as was expressed by the men with the courage to share their monologues at the Quinnipiac University theater.
Each man who shared their story worked through a long, difficult process to write their scripts with either one or two of only four theater students selected to work on the project, which started back in September. The process took more than time, which is difficult for these men to find among the rigorous requirements asked of them either by their probation officers or their work at EMERGE. Writing these scripts required the men to revisit the most painful times of their lives, which some of them were told to move past, even forget. However, through this production they could create something even larger than themselves, activism. Writing, editing and performing to inspire social change became a healing process for the men.
Most theater involves actors, practiced professionals or students. However, the men from EMERGE braved the stage themselves. The act of sharing their own stories in the form of monologues, is considered a different genre of theater. This type of theater, using the exact words of the subjects is known as verbatim theater, is derived from documentary theater. The blog “A Matter of Style” explains that documentary theater is intended to bring about social and political change. Verbatim theater is not intended to be edited or transformed, although it can take different forms, such as recording voices or selecting sentences to be used from interviews. The Guardian article, “Verbatim theatre: the people's voice?,” described narrative theater as having at its heart of the process, empathy. It was essential that everyone who helped to put on the production maintained empathetic to the men and their needs throughout each stage of the process.
‘AS WE EMERGE: Monologues of the Formerly Incarcerated,” is close to verbatim theater in its purest form, using the exact words from the men’s stories. The idea was conceived by Sawyer, inspired by Syracuse’s theater production of “Separated,” a production of veterans sharing their experiences of returning home after combat. A veteran himself, the idea struck close with Sawyer, who also sits on the board of EMERGE. Sawyer saw the importance of sharing the stories of those formerly incarcerated, written off by a society who seeks labels to allow for a lack of responsibility. Sawyer saw theater as an opportunity to share the men’s stories and presented his idea to Kevin Daly, an assistant professor of theater at Quinnipiac.
Daly understood the importance of a production such as this as well as its value, “We’re left to put past judgement that says [the formerly incarcerated] have done something wrong and that is why they are where they are and we never really pay attention to the fact that just ten minutes down the road is a completely different universe than the one [Quinnipiac students] live in.”
Sawyer, who grew up in the projects during the crack era felt a sense of guilt for some time, as he was able to leave the environment that inhibits so many young men of color, while those who ensured his bright future, faced time behind bars. Sawyer seizes every opportunity to use his affluence as a platform to initiate societal change. Leaders at EMERGE participated in plenty of back and forth with Sawyer and Daly about whether they should allow men of such different socioeconomic status to perform at a private university, such as Quinnipiac. The biggest obstacle in this process became trust. Eventually, leaders at EMERGE agreed to move forward with the project, particularly for Sawyer’s intent.
Daly stated, “[Sawyer’s] vision for this had nothing to do with the audience and everything to do with the men and women who would participate.”
The process was treated delicately and professionally. The words recited by the men, were their own. The four students who helped the men with their scripts applied to the program and invested their summer break to research. Students like Connor Whiteley, an economic and theater major, applied to partake in the experience in the spring prior and began research on the “The Telling Project,” “a national performing arts non-profit that employs theater to deepen our understanding of the military and veterans’ experience,” as explained on their website.
Daly and Sawyer ensured that this process would be positive for the men. Each man’s story was highly valued and Sawyer worked extensively to ensure that these men were not just heard but were given the opportunity to be listened to, this production would not become voyeurism.
Sawyer stated, “When you hear their stories understand how precious it is for you to be able to experience it and hear that and take that it in, its real. That’s why I’m glad they were willing to share this.”
Many of the men were grateful for the experience because not every man of color still has a voice, let alone are given an opportunity to be heard. A victim of gun violence at the age of 13, Shakeem Anderson, of Bridgeport could have become just another statistic. Instead, Anderson
Prior to working with Anderson, Andre, Colon, Johnson, Keitt, Williams and J. Johnson there was an initial meet and greet with the students. The biggest obstacle, Lindsey Downy and Connor Whiteley also faced was trust. Students were prepped to conduct interviews by the faculty and asked questions based on a tent-pole method, which remained the same for each of the men.
The students spent two 90-minute interviewing sessions with the men. The interactions were recorded and later transcribed and mined for a script. Whiteley explained that when it finally came time to create a script, “We never took liberties of editing it ourselves,” he said. “Across the board it was important to us that we don’t take any liberties with their words because it is their stories, their words.” The scripts were returned back to the men for a read through and edit. This process requires a lot from these men as the theater students worked with them to to edit their scripts multiple times. Roger Johnson, 43, of New Haven, stated, “having to keep reading and revisit certain parts in the script brought back a lot of memories.”
The process was always equally important as the production. Daly even felt it was important to adapt the production a bit to accommodate the men. Originally, the monologues were intended to be read without the scripts in hand, however the process, based on empathy, was not about appearance but a production by the men as well as for their benefit. Daly essentially had one goal, to share the men’s stories.
For the participants, the ability to share their experiences for a societal good became apart of their healing process. At times the process was difficult, Maurice Keitt, 29, of New Haven, stated, “You really find yourself in those exact moments talking about it and you can’t even find the words for it.”
For the men who were told to leave events in the past, this process no longer allowed for that. Keitt said, “It brought a lot of old wounds up but the older wounds are healing differently now because we are talking about it.”
Other men who participated reiterated this feeling, “my story, it wasn’t something that was supposed to be told,” Santos explained. “I say today made it my healing process, I think I feel better now.”
Society neglects men like Anderson, Andre, Colon, Johnson, Keitt, Williams and J. Johnson, dehumanizing them with a label, criminal. “AS WE EMERGE: Monologues of the Formerly Incarcerated,” provided a platform for men who are never given the opportunity to be heard, to create social change.