Stage director Jerrell L. Henderson leans forward as actors Brandon Rubin and Andrew Burger take their places during a rehearsal in Trenton’s Mill Hill Playhouse, where Trenton’s only professional theater company, Passage Theater, is in residence.
Henderson, dressed in a gray hoodie, is bunched up in a chair near a dozen or so gallon cans of paint near the front of the stage. He’s staring at the script of the new play “Caged,” set for its world premiere at Passage starting on Thursday, May 3, and continuing weekends through May 20.
Rubin, bright in a scarlet Rutgers sweatshirt, paces while Burger, more formal in matching slacks and suit jacket, silently repeats some lines.
Henderson seems inspired, looks up, and says, “Let’s try it.” Then calling the two actors by their character names asks them to enliven the moment when the newly incarcerated Omar encounters a figure representing the prison hierarchy.
“It’s my phone,” says Burger’s menacing inmate as Omar approaches, “Touch it and I’ll cut you from your neck to your thick lips.”
“I don’t want trouble,” replies Rubin’s Omar, who only wants to talk to his family and brushes past his fellow prisoner.
Hold it, says Henderson. Something isn’t working. The veteran prisoner yields too quickly to the new one.
The two actors and director try it again by applying a few different approaches, but the adjustments in tone, pacing, and body language do not help.
“Let’s ask Boris,” Henderson says.
Boris is Boris Franklin, an actor waiting in the downstairs dressing room. He is also one of the 28 inmates in the maximum-security New Jersey prison in Rahway where this new stage work was born. The group is now called the New Jersey Prison Cooperative.
“When I went to prison I was 31,” Franklin, 46, says later. “I was charged with second degree reckless manslaughter and third degree criminal restraint. I was sentenced to 15 years with 11 years mandatory before release.”
While in prison, he says he “chose to take a course in urban history, and Chris Hedges just happened to be the professor.”
Hedges is also a Princeton-based Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author, former professor at Princeton University, activist, and ordained Presbyterian minister. He also conducted classes within the prison system.
“My class, although I did not know this when I began teaching, had the most literate and accomplished writers in the prison,” says Hedges in a statement for the online publication Truthdig.
The 2013 class was also the laboratory that created the play that gives voice to a hidden segment of American society. Hedges says “the mass incarceration of primarily poor people of color, people who seldom have access to adequate legal defense and who are often kept behind bars for years for nonviolent crimes or for crimes they did not commit, is one of the most shameful mass injustices committed in the United States.”
The statistics from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative back up his claim: 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
Hedges says he “saw the class members had a keen eye for detail, had lived through the moral and physical struggles of prison life, and had the ability to capture the patois of the urban poor and the prison underclass. They were able to portray in dramatic scenes and dialogue the horror of being locked in cages for years.
“And although the play they collectively wrote is fundamentally about sacrifice — the sacrifice of mothers for children, brothers for brothers, prisoners for prisoners — the title they chose was ‘Caged.’ They made it clear that the traps that hold them are as present in impoverished urban communities as in prison.”
Hedges says the weekly scenes written by the students “grew, line by line, scene by scene, into a powerful and deeply moving dramatic vehicle. The voices and reality of those at the very bottom rung of our society began to flash across the pages like lightning strikes. There was more brilliance, literacy, passion, wisdom, and integrity in that classroom than in any other classroom I have taught in, and I have taught at some of the most elite universities in the country.”
He says through the creation of the dramatic work the class was transformed into a place of reflection, debate, and self-discovery. A place where offhand comments reflected the pain, loneliness, and abandonment embedded in the lives of the students and created moments that left the class unable to speak.
As Hedges puts it, “The various drafts of the play, made up of scenes and dialogue contributed by everyone in the class, brought to the surface the suppressed emotions and pain that the students bear with profound dignity.
“A prisoner who has been incarcerated for 22 years related a conversation with his wife during her final visit in 1997 (saying) ‘I told you when I got found guilty to move on with your life, because I knew what kind of time I was facing, but . . . just don’t keep my son from me. That’s all I ask.’ He never saw his child again. When he handed me the account he said he was emotionally unable to read it out loud.
“Those with life sentences wrote about dying in prison. The prisoners are painfully aware that some of them will end their lives in the medical wing without family, friends, or even former cellmates.” And that “often no one comes to collect the bodies. Often, family members and relatives are dead or long estranged. The corpses are taken by the guards and dumped in unmarked graves.”
Hedges continues with accounts of isolated prisoners adopting mice as pets, naming them, bathing them, talking to them, and keeping them on string leashes. Then there are the dying prisoners who would ask him to hold their hand.
About the writing, Hedges says, “The students wanted to be true to the violence and brutality of the streets and prison — places where one does not usually have the luxury of being nonviolent — yet affirm themselves as dignified and sensitive human beings. They did not want to paint everyone in the prison as innocents. But they know that transformation and redemption are real.”
It’s that reality director Henderson is now seeking from the New Brunswick-born Franklin. Raised by a mother who worked at the Piscataway Board of Education and a father who “worked off and on until he settled at New Brunswick Housing,” Franklin is now a Highland Park resident taking classes at Rutgers University and pursuing both acting and playwriting.
“I had not done any professional writing or theater before the class,” says Franklin during some e-mail exchanges. “However, I had published a poetry book while I was in the county jail titled ‘The Poetic Side of a Man’s Mind.’”
Since he had served as a facilitator for a prison-run program called New Direction where prisoners would write about their experiences as part of a therapeutic program, Franklin says he was excited about Hedges’ idea about writing from personal experience.
Eventually, he says, the playwriting process became more important, especially “when the administration began to wonder what was in the play. At that point I knew we were making people uncomfortable so we must’ve been on to something.”
At the rehearsal, as the director and actors struggle with their scene, Franklin, a man of medium age and size in blue sweater and dark trousers, arrives on the stage and Henderson presents the problem.
Franklin thinks for a moment, and then offers an idea.”Use an announcement for ‘Yard.’ That means getting outside for an hour. That’s something no one wants to miss.”
Henderson’s response is a simple “Let’s try it.” And once again the newly incarcerated Omar strolls up to the hardened inmate and engages in a verbal confrontation that leads to a silent but tense standoff.
But now the silence is broken by the stage manger’s simple call, “Yard.” And with the omnipotent prison system disrupting the interaction, the veteran convict moves away and creates the void that allows Omar to move forward.
Franklin and Henderson nod. The gesture validates Hedges’ claim: the work has a “visceral, raw anger and undeniable truth that only the lost and the damned can articulate.”
Caged, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Opens Thursday, May 3, 7:30 p.m., and continues Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays, 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, 3 p.m., through May 20. $13 to $33. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org