‘Opened my whole world up’: inside Oscar-tipped prison theater drama Sing Sing

Estimated read time 7 min read

When Sean “Dino” Johnson first heard of a new theater program from another guy in the yard at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison 30 miles north of New York City, he thought it was a joke. “I’m like, ‘Theater?’ I’m waiting for the punchline,” he recalled recently over Zoom. “Theater? This is a maximum security facility and you’re talking about wanting me to run around with tights talking about to be and not to be? Stop playing.” Johnson first got caught up in the punitive US carceral system at 15, as a wayward youth in Queens. At Sing Sing, he was a man of few words, a self-proclaimed “block monster”. “I couldn’t communicate too effectively,” he said. “And when I ran out of vocabulary, violence was the only thing I knew and leaned on.”

Johnson had no theater experience, but the program, called Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA), piqued his interest. He went to the first meeting to check it out, do props, find “something to do other than sitting around this yard and counting time”. He started reading a script for a new play and, to his surprise, enjoyed it. He kept reading. He brought the script back to his cell, went to another reading, even began looking forward to them. “It just started changing my thinking, like, ‘nah, I can’t get into trouble. Then I won’t be able to go down and be able to read,’” he said. Before RTA, Johnson had “very little to say, because every time I open my mouth, people take it the wrong way and it leads to something else. Very misunderstood.” The program “just opened my whole world up”.

That journey – the personal transformation through art, and the program’s too-rare opportunities for dignity, community, expression and exploration in prison – is the subject of Sing Sing, a new feature starring Rustin’s Colman Domingo and filmed on location at the facility where RTA began in 1996. Directed by Greg Kwedar, the film mixes professional actors with formerly incarcerated alumni of the program, including Johnson, Jon-Adrian “JJ” Velazquez and Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, all playing versions of themselves. Domingo stars as Divine G, based on the real-life John “Divine G” Whitfield, a mellow, bookish man who found purpose during his decades at Sing Sing through RTA. A trained dancer, novelist, playwright and devoted performer, Divine G informally runs the program, along with his best friend Mike Mike (Sean San José) and writer/director Brent Buell (Paul Raci), the only non-incarcerated member of the troupe.

Maclin, who assisted on a story by Kwedar, Clint Bentley and Whitfield, is the yin to Divine G’s yang; Divine Eye, whom G recruits for RTA, is guarded, threatening, tough, leaning into the expected stereotype of prison. He won’t be upfront about it, but he knows Shakespeare, and skeptical as he is as to the utility of theater in such a brutal, dehumanizing environment, starts attending rehearsals and challenging its nascent traditions (and Divine G’s hopes for more Shakespeare). Maclin based the character in part on himself, and in part on what he witnessed during 17 and a half years in prison. For many incarcerated at Sing Sing, “we tend to minimize our humanity,” he said. “Because it could be detrimental to you to show empathy, to cry, or to show any kind of weakness inside of a facility that has a predatory nature.”

Like his character, Maclin “took care of business” on the yard yet was cautiously curious about RTA. It took a year of no infractions for him to get into the program. “They treated me like a human being,” he recalled. “They treated me like my opinion was valuable and I had to reciprocate that. And it just helped me grow as a man.” In the film, Divine Eye slowly opens up over the course of rehearsals for a Buell original time travel comedy called Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code (based on the real 2005 play of the same name, as outlined in an Esquire article; footage from the real show underscores how closely the filmmakers hewed to the original).

The film has touches of comedy, the warmth of a good hang with friends and close collaborators – impromptu dances, fragile camaraderie, a montage of playful, committed auditions. But it quietly takes on the bigger questions of the human soul, of how of to find redemption, of how to endure in the blunt maw of the US prison system. RTA is not a cure for a deeply flawed system but a community, a practice and a process; while the national prison recidivism rate is over 60%, less than 5% of RTA alumni ever return. “It’s a connection that’s made,” said Maclin. “It’s something that transcends what you can see with your eyes. It’s a connection that’s way deeper than that.”

four men stand in front of wall with 'sing sing' on itView image in fullscreen

“Everybody in Sing Sing that goes to those shows is RTA. That’s how RTA makes us feel,” said Velazquez, who served nearly 24 years at Sing Sing for a wrongful conviction. “When your brother’s on that stage and he’s putting on that performance to make you feel better in your life, despite what you’re going through, that’s what RTA’s power comes from. We all become one under that roof when we’re watching that show.”

Inevitably, the term “humanizing” comes up in relation to the film – a fraught descriptor, given that the men of Sing Sing are and have always been human. But Velazquez, Johnson and Maclin embrace the chance to show a different side of a population so often stereotyped, feared and literally shunted out of view. “It’s based on our experience, and our experience is a dehumanizing experience,” said Velazquez. “Yes, it’s ridiculous to have to speak about humanizing people because all people are human. But what we need society to recognize is that all people are not being treated human. And then there’s an expectation that after you get treated that way, that you’re supposed to come home somehow miraculously rehabilitated.”

“We knew about the humanity that existed behind the wall. It’s the world that don’t know about it,” said Johnson. “It’s the world that has to be educated about the humanity, the resilience of the humanity, and the strength of the human spirit, the will to better oneself, the desire to better oneself.”

film still of line of men in a room looking at somethingView image in fullscreen

Sing Sing does not offer proscriptions or overt political speeches. It doesn’t need to; the journey to Breakin’ the Mummy’s Code, at turns tense, bitter and cathartic, and the capable performances by real RTA alumni, speak for themselves. And offer a challenge to audiences, to think about what actually rehabilitative incarceration would look like and to extend empathy to people they have written off. “We have so many people waiting for the opportunity to show the community, to restore hope, but society doesn’t embrace them,” said Johnson.

Velazquez, who now advocates for criminal legal reform, noted that though RTA is a unique program, its alumni are not special: “Is society going to stay locked in this bubble where they think that we are anomalies? Or are they going to see us as a reflection of people who need an opportunity? Because that’s the difference. We were given the opportunity.”

“There’s a me in their community. There’s somebody like me, that all they need is some hope given to them or some type of encouragement to unlock that beautiful person that’s inside,” Maclin added. “We’re going to come home. We’re going to be the guy in the laundromat with you, I’m going to be the guy in the grocery line with you, the guy in the car next to the red light – how do you want us to be?”

  • Sing Sing is out in US cinemas on 12 July and in the UK on 30 August

Source: theguardian.com

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