by Efren Paredes, Jr.
After several months of production the moment finally arrived this past Friday for playwrites at the Handlon Correctional Facility to perform a play they produced titled "Only the Blind Can See."
The play script was written by prisoner participants in the MSU Story Catcher's Drama Club and performed in the prison auditorium for the prisoner population. Also in attendance were Warden Dewayne Burton; Dr. Austin Jackson, director of the MSU My Brother's Keeper Program; and other prison staff members. It was the first play ever performed at the prison.
The Story Catcher's Drama Club is lead by Dr. Lisa Biggs, an actress and assistant professor in the Michigan State University Residential College of the Arts and Humanities.
Dr. Biggs created the "story catcher's" concept as a vehicle to deconstruct false and misleading narratives about members of marginalized communities. She believes we can empower communities by fostering the creation of counter-stories that shatter stereotypes, promote equality, and combat words that wound which can result in a withered self-concept.
Storytelling provides a forum for the marginalized voice. According to Richard Delgado, "Through personal histories, parables, chronicles, dreams, stories, poetry, fiction, and revisionist histories, the marginalized voice is allowed to teach us other realities that we need to know in our world."
"Only the Blind Can See" is a play about a teenage African-American male who collapses in a town. People all over the community make assumptions about the event, including believing that he was a victim of violence.
In the end it is a blind man who simply asks if anyone has checked the teenager's body for vitals. The question leads to the discovery that the teenager is still alive, revealing that many people drew wrong conclusions about what occurred.
It was the one character in the story that could not physically see who had the clearest vision of all. He did not allow his opinion to be distorted like other people did which resulted in their flawed conclusions.
The moral of the story was the need to recognize the importance of utilizing all our conceptual tools to interpret reality rather than reaching conclusions based on fragments of information. Too often people make erroneous assumptions about people or events with little or no evidence to support their belief.
The play was replete with a broad spectrum of experiences. Some were funny, serious, and others were designed to evoke serious thought, reflection, and penetrating insight.
Audience members described the play as "disciplined and heartfelt," "40 minutes of great entertainment," and "brilliantly done." They also discussed the performance with several other prisoners upon returning back to their housing units later that evening. They shared impactful scenes with friends and recited various lines by characters in the play.
Each cast member took their role(s) seriously and their performances reflected their commitment to success. Most had never performed before a large crowd and had to quickly overcome fears associated with that experience.
Shortly before the play began one cast member peeked through the curtain to view the audience. Upon seeing the large attendance he abruptly closed the curtain and returned to the back of the stage.
He indicated that he felt intimidated by the presence of so many people and didn't think he would be able to perform his character. After some encouragement from other cast members he regained his confidence and subsequently delivered a stellar performance.
Another cast member had been previously characterized as shy and introverted when the theater workshop initially began. One prisoner described him this way: "He never used to interact with other prisoners or come out of his cell. The class made him come out of his shell and start talking to people. He changed a lot in a good way."
According to Diarra Bryant, another member of the cast, "Men came together to present a narrative about the difficulties of life and the joy that comes from triumphing over struggle."
One of the youngest performers, Kenyatta Johnson, was impressed with how Dr. Biggs "continued to break down walls and barriers that the men in her class didn't even know existed." He added, "I learned a lot from the experience and forged new bonds with people from different walks of life I had never talked to before."
Dr. Biggs taught cast members deep listening skills, the importance of collaborating with and respecting the opinions of others, and she fostered the development of their self-confidence. She also challenged them to embrace vulnerability which can serve as a pathway to exploring new experiences.
I played multiple roles in the play as a student, storekeeper, poet, and mayor whose role was to calm escalating tensions in a city that was demanding answers to why the teenager collapsed.
I wrote the dialogue for a mayoral press conference scene which appeared in the play. It was a proud moment for me personally because it was the first time I ever wrote anything for or appeared in a play.
The name I gave to the character I developed in the play as the mayor, Carlos Munoz, Jr., was done as a tribute to a friend and mentors I admire and profoundly respect. Dr. Munoz is Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, in the Chicano Studies Dept.; author of "Youth, Identity, Power"; and a long-time Chicano and human rights activist who recently suffered a stroke.
The success of the play would have never been possible without the dynamic stewardship and careful guidance of Dr. Biggs. Her passion for education and the arts is a model many other educators can learn from.
The cast of "Only the Blind Can See" would like to thank Warden Dewayne Burton for allowing the play to be performed, and to staff member Jodie Heard for coordinating the cast costume inventory, facilitating the scheduling of prisoner audience members to attend the performance, and printing the programs.
A special thanks to Dr. Biggs for sacrificing valuable time from her busy schedule to travel to the Ionia-based prison weekly for several months to share her wisdom, expertise, and inspire cast members to explore the depth of their imaginations.
One concept Dr. Biggs introduced to cast members was "sawubona," which she learned about while conducting a theater workshop for women prisoners in South Africa. The Zulu term inculcates the value of recognizing the inherent dignity in fellow human beings.
Lessons like these and others helped the men remove their intellectual blinders, evolve into better people, and empowered them to become the torch bearers to carry on Dr. Biggs' legacy of teaching the world the vital role that story catchers play in our society.
It is a legacy well-deserving of our time and dedication. And, one that will proudly be carried on.