Omar Moore’s costume

‘Caged,” the title of a Passage Theater offering by the New Jersey Prison Cooperative, refers to and depicts time in prison but wisely extends its reach to general conditions and attitudes that trap some in a life pattern destined to lead to jail.

Created by prisoners telling, gathering, and writing their stories for the sake of making this play, scenes of incarceration intersperse with a story of a Newark family whose encounters with police and serial lock-ups are part and parcel of overall existence.

The focal member of the family, Omar (Brandon Rubin), comments during one intake that prison, with its tight cell blocks, close crowds of denizens, and interior codes is little different from the housing project in which he, his parents, siblings, and infant son reside.

The cooperative endows “Caged” with some strong scenes, both domestic and within the prison setting. One jail sequence in which a veteran con (Boris Franklin) pleads with Omar to forego a revenge killing of another prisoner smacks of informed reality, taut playwriting, and intense theater. It keeps you on edge until you know whether Franklin’s character will be successful.

Oddly, Omar is not the character you worry about most. He seems inured to a cycle of difficult living that includes poverty, crime, frustrated resistance, criminal justice machinations, and jail. The figures earning more empathy and hope are Omar’s younger brother, Quan (Ural Grant), who has legitimate entrepreneurial dreams even though he is enlisted, by necessity, for drug running; Omar’s son, Zaire, who grows from infancy to age 17 with his future always in jeopardy; and Chimene (Monah Yancy), the boys’ mother and grandmother, who endures a lot while trying, though battling terminal illness, to keep her family together and safe. They are the innocent who make you think there could be a fighting chance the legacy of the projects, petty crime, and prosecution can be escaped.

“Caged” is melodramatic, but its story cuts through cliche to present a picture of people in a situation beyond their control. The Cooperative shows the many routes to jail, for Omar almost a rite of passage, and comments on how some of those routes are rigged.

Omar, for instance, doesn’t want to be involved in drugs, but probation for a trivial misdemeanor inhibits him being offered jobs, and crime brings cash to a family on constant brink of eviction. Once embroiled in street life and known to prosecutors, Omar is persuaded to take plea bargains that may not be in his best interest.

“Caged” doesn’t excuse or deny crimes have been committed but concentrates on how an individual’s involvement with the criminal justice system can evolve into a dubious records and sentences that don’t reflect the severity of the offense. Possibly more telling than Omar’s story is the plight of his sister, Sharonda (Nicolette Lynch), who scores one minor traffic violation that soars into fines, arrest, and bouts of jail time.

“Caged” is strong and clear on how and why people get caught up in activity that leads to incarceration. It doesn’t justify criminal action, but shows how the system adds to the woes of poor people who land in it.

“Caged” goes about the work it chooses quite well. Its writing based on stories by almost 30 prisoners and developed by June Ballinger, Chris Hedges, Jerrell L. Henderson, Michael Schantz, Jeffrey Wise, and Eunice Long is sharp and evocative. Points are made articulately and sincerely.

That said, “Caged” touches on a small side of all that is involved in being in prison. It encapsulates a lot of information, feelings, and judicial realities within its scenes and dialogue, but its story doesn’t seem complete.

Partly this is because putting in everything about prison would be daunting. The subject is so broad and has so many aspects. Partly it’s because of a good decision by the Cooperative to concentrate on one family and the separate but interwoven fates of Omar, Quan, and Sharonda. “Caged” gives more of a sense of entanglement in a lifestyle than of everyday life and a myriad of conditions behind prison walls.

What’s missing is contrasting Omar being mired in a system that exaggerates his crimes with someone who has earned long years in prison. “Caged” makes an attempt by housing Omar with a lifer, Ojore (Will Badgett), a bank robber who killed two policemen trying to arrest him, but it undercuts the character’s nasty criminal nature letting him do a comic riff about being a 1960s-style black revolutionary “re-appropriating” funds from capitalist banks to redistribute to the people, namely him. In short, giving some cons a downside and adding a character who receives more relative injustice than Omar might benefit the play.

Another suggestion would be letting the audience see Zaire, Omar’s son only viewed in his cradle and a series of photos projected on an upstage screen, as he becomes a teen and faces challenges that overwhelmed, and eventually defeated, his grandfather, father, and uncle.

And giving a sense of time and weight to Omar’s prison time would also help. Omar spends about 16 years in jail, marked mostly by those pictures of a growing Zaire. But in the play Omar always seems as if he is newly arrived. Rubin doesn’t seem to age in face or posture.

Nor does he seem settled behind bars, but always the newbie being tutored in prison ways by Ojore and his godfather, a buddy of his father’s.

Though it can be improved, “Caged” is engaging throughout. Jerrell L. Henderson’s production is fluid and hits key emotional points while keeping the story it tells compelling.

Henderson is aided by a fine cast. Rubin shows shades to Omar that go beyond the script. Grant brings out Quan’s combined ambition and naivety so you feel and root for his success. Lynch, so natural she doesn’t seem to be acting as Sharonda, is powerful in delivering a long, funny, and telling monologue about women’s lot in prison.

Yancy provides a heart and breaks hearts as the family matriarch. Badgett is a lively Ojore and conveys the positives and negatives of Omar’s father. Franklin brings needed tension to his scenes. And Binger scores well in a variety of character parts.

German Cardenas-Alaminos creates a versatile set that shifts quickly from an apartment setting to a prison cell. Lighting designer Daniel Schreckengost and sound designer Beth Lake combine to produce some excellent effects, particularly in a crucial scene involving Quan. An-lin Dauber’s costumes are perfect for the characters who wear them.

Caged, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Through Sunday, May 20. $33 to $38. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org

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