Kids Can Change

My first article on Huffington Post is co-authored with prisoner Chris Zoukis, “Kids Can Change: Stop Sending Juveniles to Adult Prisons and Jails.” It begins:

“In a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision is a deceptively simple line that :should affect, and in many cases, transform the way Americans think about juveniles who kill.

At the heart of the 2012 groundbreaking case, Miller v. Alabama, said the Court, is the idea, proven by neuroscience and behavioral research, that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.” In other words, when we think about kids convicted of murder, this is the truth: a 16-year-old who kills is still a 16-year-old.”MORE

Two Plays: Finding One’s Place in a Country that Doesn’t Want You

 

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Photo by Rxasgomez on en.wikipedia – Originally from en.wikipedia; Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=738097

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, as a German Jew, never explicitly taught but always implicitly believing that I was safe. Somehow, because my family had come here in 1830, and somehow, because they had assimilated into the predominantly Christian culture, I was not Jewish in the ways of those Jews who talked fast, drew attention to their Jewishness, and hung together come hell or high water. What a shock it must have been to many German Jews, at first, when Hitler didn’t discriminate. Education couldn’t save you; money guaranteed little unless it helped you get out of Europe quickly. If you were Jewish, you were the enemy. But today, more than 70 years after the Holocaust it might be surprising to discover how many German Jews still struggle with their heritage and the illusion that Antisemitism won’t happen to them.

Two plays I saw this past weekend touched deep chords in me, but from the reactions of everyone around me in the theatre, I was not alone. Both pieces ask the question if we can ever escape (or should escape) our backgrounds. Laden with all the history we bring with us, can we every really fit in to another, often antagonistic, culture?

The first, a Pulitzer prize winner, Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar played at the Huntington Theatre, and sadly has finished its run, but not before knocking the socks off its audience. In the program, one of the questions posed by Huntington’s Lisa Trimmel and Phaedre Scott is “How does one’s identity fit into the narrative of contemporary America?” And the particular journey Disgraced takes us on to answer that question is the journey of Amir, a Muslim-American, played brilliantly by Rajesh Bose, who has rejected his religion and risen to success as a lawyer in a fancy New York firm. But Amir does not have enough, in spite of the beautiful white American wife who is an artist and delves into Muslim inspired art. In spite of his luxurious apartment and obvious wealth. He lives with conflict. As the play intensifies, we shift in our seats as he at one moment hates his past and at another feels proud; criticizes violence in the Koran and yet for a horrifying moment, becomes violent; refuses to defend a fellow Pakistani accused of terrorism and yet shows up at his hearing.

The play touches on what parts of oneself we can let go of and what parts of oneself we can retain. In the U.S. where we certainly have our own “toolbox of colonization” as an audience member called it, there is no way that rage cannot be a result of the suppression of self, the definition of the “other” by the colonizer. To paraphrase Cornel West, will that rage be focused through love and justice or through rage and dissent? I would say that Amir has not yet answered that question to his own satisfaction. He loses his wife and his job as he realizes how much he has not dealt with his rage. We are each left wondering about our own part in this tragedy, no matter where we come from.

Across town in Cambridge at the Central Square Theatre, you still have a chance to see another powerful piece that also raises fascinating questions, The Convert by Danai Gurira. This play takes place in Southern Africa’s Zimbabwe in 1895. A young Shona woman is taken in by a black Evangelical who she calls “Master” in order to escape a forced marriage. Jekesai, played eloquently by Adobuere Ebiama, changes her name to Ester, submits to authority frequently, learns English fluidly, and seems to swallow Christianity in total. But the strength of her traditions and the power of her heritage come into play as violence swirls around the country. Her eventual reaction to being almost totally crushed is the complex and understandable response when a people have experienced colonization and conquest. She returns, in some part, to her roots.

Most interesting is the Master, called Chilford, who has become an Evangelical, played with depth and restraint by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. He is essentially bought by the Whites to carry the gospel of the Lord to the African population. But this bought spokeman buckles when his entire world is threatened; his loyalties battle with his assumed identity.

The audience is on the edge of its seat as the story unfolds, and the acting in this small space undoes us (only occasionally a bit more than the space can handle). The history shown so painfully hits us in the character of Shona’s relative and elder, Mai Tumbai, the servant of Chilford, acted with grace and passion by Liana Asim. She takes us to Zimbabwe in heart and soul. In the first act, she and Chilford enable us to see how religion is one of the most destructive forces of Colonialism.

But all the actors shine in this production, from Nehassaiu DeGannes’s Prudence, who finds she cannot have any impression on the White regime in spite of her years of education and adoption of the most perfect British mannerisms, to the representation of the power of tribe in the form of Uncle played by Paul S. Benford Bruce.

In a fascinating pre-play discussion panel for The Convert, one of the panelists made the comment that losing pieces of your family takes away from your whole being. Another mentioned that dehumanization occurs with colonization. “No Christ, no rice,” as Haitian victims of the hurricane in 2010 were told by Christian organizations providing relief.

But perhaps, my favorite comment of all was the one that tied together why it is so necessary to have such plays today when we see police brutality, the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, and a presidential campaign in the U.S. that is as terrifying as it is important. Panelist Robin Chandler, an artist and sociologist, shared noted playwright and poet Aimé Césaire’s thoughts. Césaire was one of the founding fathers of Negritude, a black consciousness movement that asserted pride in African cultural values. It aimed to “counterbalance the inferior status accorded to them in European colonial thinking.”

Césaire’s profound words underscore why these plays speak so truly to us. He said, “Art is the only weapon we have against the deafness of history.” Amen.

Joe Dever’s Funeral Arrangements

Joseph I. Dever

Joseph I. Dever

Born: August 19, 1935
Died: January 24, 2016

Our beloved Joe Dever’s wake will be Thursday, January 28th, at the Murphy Funeral Home in Salem, Massachusetts, from 4:00-8:00 p.m. Directions are here. His obituary is here. The Marblehead paper has an article about Judge D’s life. Also, here is one from the Lynn Item.

The Funeral Mass will be at 11:00 a.m. at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church at 80 Atlantic Ave, in Marblehead, MA and directions are here.

 

My Dear Friend Joe Dever

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Judge Joseph Dever, center, featured with me and our Changing Lives Through Literature class

My dear friend and colleague, Judge Joseph Dever, is in hospice care at home and not expected to live past the weekend. I have never eulogized someone before their death, but Joe and I often joked that he was essentially “my second husband,” and I know he needs to feel my words sent into the world at a time when he is dying.

I worked with Joe beginning in 1992 when together we started the Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program for women. We were inspired by Judge Robert Kane and Professor Robert Waxler who began the program for men in the southern part of Massachusetts. They aimed for an opportunity to help people get out of the cycle of crime by offering them a literature intervention, so to speak. We wanted to give it a shot with women, and so for nearly twenty-three years, Judge D, as I called him in our classes, trooped from Lynn to Lowell every other Tuesday evening for CLTL at Middlesex Community College where we held classes, most often in the president’s office. For twenty-three years, he joyfully climbed into a van with the women and a Lynn probation officer, and rode more than thirty miles to and from the college, because he believed so strongly in this program

I have written many times about CLTL, notably here, but for those who don’t know, the program brings those sentenced by the court to probation into a college literature seminar. It is a very unique collaboration between the courts and education, and while “changing lives” is a large claim, it certainly helps pave the road to new attitudes, abilities, understandings, and intentions—for all the participants. Simply put, probationers, probation officers, judges, and professors sit in a classroom together and discuss books. I call it a “democratic classroom” because all opinions about literature are on equal footing. It’s been called everything from “Books for Crooks” to a program where they “Throw the Book at Them.” Judge Dever always called it “the joy of my judgeship.”

Joe Dever was Boston born and graduated from Boston University School of Law in 1960. He was first a dedicated public defender, something he prided fiercely, and he always told me, “in no uncertain terms:”  There are no better public defender programs in any part of the country than in Massachusetts. He loved the law passionately, almost as much as he loved his family. Joe and his wife Anne (who always organized and appreciated Joe’s lofty spirit) raised a family of public servants. They inspired their four children to fight for the good of others. They relished humor, and they loved their home in Marblehead. A loyal and generous soul, Joe spent many mornings with buddies from his town, eating breakfast, discussing the day, admonishing the Red Sox, and critiquing all decisions made by those in public office.

But Joe knew the law was a foundation for him. Once when I was called for jury duty, Joe told me he hoped very much that I’d make the cut. “Nothing teaches you more about being a citizen than being on a jury,” he said.

Like his uncles, Governor of Massachusetts, Paul A. Dever, and Ted Dever, the presiding justice at Cambridge District Court, Joe yearned to make a difference. He was appointed a judgeship in 1987 by Governor Michael S. Dukakis. He was eventually appointed presiding justice in the Lynn District Court and held that position for more than 10 years.

A 2005 Boston.com article written by Kathy McCabe about Judge D. when he retired from the bench at age 70 (as is required by law) quoted him as saying “My mother believed very much in the dramatic arts.” That is another thing Joe and I shared, a love for the spoken word. After my book Shakespeare Behind Bars came out, Joe stood on the bench in his robes at our graduation ceremony and read from my book to a packed Lynn District Court, quoting me and quoting Shakespeare.

There was no one who could read like Joe. Every semester at the beginning of our CLTL class, Joe read the poem I have on my syllabus from Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s book, In Evidence. Helfgott-Hyett interviewed veterans, soldiers who served in WW II, to create her Holocaust poetry, and after the reading, the class discussed what one has to know in order to understand this poem—what words, phrases, ideas.  Joe’s voice always rang out with the same kind of pain and joy that he contained in all his conversation. A sonorous voice filled with the kind of wisdom and understanding of a life well lived, a life that indeed filled a room.

At the University Theatre
in Harvard Square, I went
to see The True Glory and
I was still in uniform.
When they showed the films
of Dachau, the woman who sat
beside me said, “That’s a lie.”
I was rugged in those days.
I just couldn’t take it.
I said, “Lady I’ve been there.
I still smell the stench.”
And I said it loud and all
the people heard.

Joe’s life was a tribute to language. He lived with dignity, joy, a gratitude for all that he had, and the knowledge that he did change people’s lives. He will be sorely missed by the world. I am proud to say I shared so much of my work with Joe Dever, and to Joe, I say yes, “all the people heard.”

 

Remarkable People

 

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In the past weeks, I have read about two remarkable people who affected my life and work. The first, Jon Marc Taylor, was not someone I knew well, but I knew of his impact on the world. In my book Shakespeare Behind Bars, I discussed how the removal of Pell Grants almost destroyed college education behind bars. Jon was one of the most important voices in the fight to return them. But rather than talk about him myself, Lynn Glover, his long-time friend, wrote a beautiful letter that was just published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch and she has given me permission to share it below.

“Jon Marc Taylor was a remarkable man. He accomplished more than most people from a prison cell than most people have in the “free world.” He received a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ball State University and went on to complete a doctorate in public administration.

Taylor was an author and organizer. He was a strong advocate for reducing recidivism by restoring Pell Grants and he started numerous NAACP chapters in Missouri prisons. In 2010, he arranged for a full-day seminar of the national NAACP meeting in Kansas City to be held at his prison in Cameron, Mo.. Taylor wrote a book designed to help other prisoners rehabilitate themselves through education.

Taylor was incarcerated in Licking, Mo., when he was taken into solitary confinement for over 30 days for having contraband, which amounted to a small amount of butter. This is where he had a debilitating stroke in February 2014. He received therapy for this and was making much progress when his therapy was ended last February and was transferred to Charleston, Mo. He died Dec. 27, 2015, of an apparent heart attack.

Taylor was a brilliant, funny, caring and resilient man who was severely impaired in his ability to communicate from the stroke. He never gave up trying to rehabilitate himself after this and always saw hope in everything that he did. He was turned down for parole four times even though it was determined through a psychological evaluation, and through his many giving actions, that he would be no danger to society.

There is so much more that Jon Marc Taylor did while incarcerated. In the words of writer Bill Tammeus, we really did fail Jon Marc Taylor. If this is what he accomplished behind the walls of prison, it is hard to imagine what he would have done to make our world a better place had he been given his freedom many years ago. Our system is broken and we all need to do something — no matter how big or small — to prevent more injustice.”

Lynn Glover  •  Cabool, Mo.”

The Cage

Pictured above is Rick Cluchey, author and performer from the amazing play, The Cage, that was my introduction to prison theatre. I saw this production when I lived in the Bay Area in California, and Cluchey, freed from San Quentin, was touring this production. As I wrote in the Forward  of the paperback edition of SBB, ” I was taken less by the content of the play—a nightmare of violence that pitted men against guards—than by the incredible talent of the performers. The image of artists in prison as a cage with men struggling to be free stuck in my mind.” It also helped me take the punge to direct plays in prison, the beginning of my activism.

Cluchey was an amazing talent and as the New York Times recently wrote after being sentenced to prison at age 21,  “his life began to change for the better when the San Francisco Actors Workshop performed Waiting for Godot directed by Herbert Blau, at San Quentin State Prison in November 1957. Thus began the unlikely redemptive arc of Mr. Cluchey’s adulthood, one that led him out of jail and toward a career as an actor and playwright, most notably as a protégé of Samuel Beckett and an interpreter of his cryptic work.”

Cluchey died at age 82, after a career of acting in Beckett’s plays and collaborating with the man himself. he educated himself in prison, read plays, helped start the San Quentin  Actors Workshop, and became devoted to theatre. As the Times wrote, “Mr. Cluchey’s work in prison theater — including a play he wrote about prison life, “The Cage” — was a factor in the commutation of his sentence by Gov. Edmund G. Brown and his release on parole in 1966. He subsequently formed Barbwire Theater, a troupe that including several ex-convicts. They performed The Cage in numerous cities.”

While Cluchey had the chance to change his life on the outside, Jon Marc Taylor did not get the freedom he deserved. And when prisoners die, not enough people know. These two amazing men are getting important shout-outs. We also would do ourselves well to remember the men and women who die behind bars and go unnoticed by most of us.