Saturday, August 28, 2010

Puck's not a Neo-Nazi.

  The first thing I notice about Puck is his eloquent delivery of Shakespeare's lines. The second thing I notice is the large swastika tattooed on his hand, faded by time, or laser surgery. After a three hour drive with the mighty Columbia at my left  (I make a point to look up when I return whether the rock was carved out over time by the water or by a receding glacier), a quick coffee, arrival at the Two Rivers Correctional facility in Umatilla, and working with the men, I am now sitting here as Puck looks into my eyes, and I am thoroughly riveted by his acting. He's not an inmate. He's not a Neo-Nazi. He's Puck. 
  A Midsummer's Night Dream in Prison is what Johnny Stallings business card says. And that's just what it is. Johnny does Shakespeare productions in prison, and the inmates act in the plays. My old friend called me a few weeks ago to see if I'd write music for one of Shakespeare's songs so he could teach it to the inmates (see archive: A Midsummer's Night Dream in Prison), and somehow, with a few more phone  conversations Johnny convinced me to make the three hour drive and work with the men on the song. The Fairy Chorus (Peas Blossom, Cobweb, and the rest) consists of Jacob, Teri, Rex, Christopher, and John (names have been changed). Jacob and Teri are two Out tranny black men; Christopher is a short white man with recent sutures on the back of his neck. Rex is a tall black Muslim (he excused himself from the second hour as it was Ramadan) and former hair-dresser, and John, the leader of the chorus, is a nervous man with longish black curly hair.

  When I arrived at Two Rivers I was met by Johnny and his wife Nancy and by Lavon the volunteer coordinator. Lavon and I are attached by an invisible thread until I leave. She must be with me at all times and I with her. And so after assenting to a disclaimer by the guard at the entrance that I understood all sorts of things, including the fact that I might be taken hostage, and leaving all possessions behind in a locker but my notebook, pen, and text of the song, I stepped through the metal detector, met Johnny and Nancy on the other side (they had come through a separate volunteer entrance), and the four of us walked through a series of metal doors (I felt rather like Maxwell Smart), a high-gated enclosure with barbed wire at the top, through a field, and then into the medium security area proper.
  Prison, at least Two Rivers, is not like any movies I've seen. It is like a lot of high schools I've seen. Walls made of large concrete blocks painted white, shiny buffed resin flooring, and blue jeans everywhere. Blue Jeans with the red TRCI (Two Rivers Correctional Institution) emblazoned over the right thigh, and then blue shirt, and whatever shoes the inmate has are standard issue . As a volunteer you're not to wear any blue clothing lest you switch outfits to aid escape or infiltrate the population.
  This was my first time this far inside a prison. I had a friend who I'd visited before (once talking to her on a phone through a glass wall, and once at a more spacious visiting area) but I was in the bowels now. The corridors were wide and inmates walked about. They appeared to be in groups and I suppose each group had a prison guard escort but I don't recall. Some men were sweeping with push brooms, others were on their way somewhere. No one appeared to be in a hurry. More doors took us to an office room with many cubicles where some of the prison staff worked and we prepared to go through the final two doors that would lead us to the classroom..
  I shouldn't have had coffee beforehand. It exacerbated my nervousness. I didn't take the hostage threat seriously, nor was I worried about violence, but I did feel like what I imagine a substitute teacher must sometimes: the mortal dread of being in front of new students. Would they respond well? Would I make a huge faux pas ("Anybody want to go out for a beer after class?")?
  My mind reels. Is this really happening? Are men in prison playing all the roles--male and female--in a Midsummer's Night Dream, and are people really volunteering to be in the Fairy Chorus? The Fairy Chorus? In prison? I have so many questions. From my vague cultural knowledge I know...No. I know nothing, really nothing about this. I come to this experience with many pre-conceived notions, based on virtually nothing factual. Here's the list of my assumptions:

  1. Men in prison have to join a group or a gang and usually things break down along color lines.
  2. Men in prison have tattoos and gold teeth.
  3. Men in prison don't eat well.
  4. Men in prison toss feces at the guards.
  5. Men in prison rape each other in the showers.
  6. Men in prison know how to sing really well and sometimes enact fully choreographed musical routines:       .



Well a fella can dream can't he? Seriously, number six would have helped a lot as I soon discovered. The plan was to start off with me, working with the Fairy Chorus, and then I would watch the rest of the rehearsal. Johnny had a little surprise for me too as I later found out. I looked about the classroom. I think it was mainly used to teach parenting. There were lots of signs with maxims (Take this class as a parent not as a convict) and on the board someone had written in chalk: 10% of what we encounter we can control. 90% is in how we respond to things outside our control. There was scroll with a list of agreements including, No snitching adorned with signatures. One sign stated:  Read. It's what smart people do. It made me feel smart to read it.
  A guard peeked his head in and said that the men would be a little late as they were coming from a special steak dinner (well, so much for Number 3). For a moment I had the wishful thinking that I'd had on the day of a test in school: What if something happened and they didn't come? What a relief! "Well Johnny I guess it didn't work out this time. Oh, please don't apologize, how were you to know there'd be a riot in the cafeteria because the steak wasn't grass-fed? Well better luck next time." And off I'd go.
  Robert was the first man to come into the room. I introduced myself and shook his hand. Then Teri, then Christopher, and then I lost track. There were twenty men there, at least. The eldest was maybe fifty, but many were under thirty. Some were posturing, most weren't. But there was something about them...ah yes! They were perfectly and completely ordinary. It was just a room full of men. Some you'd see on the bus, some you'd see at the library, some you'd see at the grocery store. But there was no one there who looked like a psycho-tattooed-bad-ass-motherfucka. That always puts me at ease. 
 Of course you wouldn't see these men in those places. They were all here, stuck in Two Rivers. Before I came Johnny had said that the inmates had been taking his class for quite some time, and that they'd be appreciative of my presence; It means something when somebody comes that far. He was mostly right, but I learned later that he had made an error. He realized after our night there, that the class was still open to all, so that even at this late date there were new people. The new guys hadn't been part of the whole process--Johnny starts months in advance and leads a discussion group relating to the play--but I didn't know that at the time and took it all, the occasional wise crack, the murmur of some cross-talk, at face value as how things usually went.Believe me it was calm, and a far cry from the 6th grader's behavior who I used to teach at a synagogue.
  We got right to it. I've got a lot of experience teaching and had many examples from first grade through high school of what not to do. My fear and nervousness melted away as we got to the task at hand and the real work began. I did what I always do with singers first. I commend them for taking the risk of singing. In the United States, while there are many singing artists, the fact of just anybody singing in their daily life with their work or their play or their socializing is near extinction. So I always make a quick note of it and begin. My five men in the chorus and I stood in front of the others as we practiced. Not ideal, but workable. Normally I would have people do a few exercises just to warm up the chords, but it felt like pushing it in this situation. Johnny had made cd's of the song I wrote (there's no internet access in prison) and so I had the men give it a go. I started them off with a simple do-wop progression to back the lead singer and right off the bat Teri said, "Hey wait a minute, isn't that Duke of Earl?"
  I couldn't tell if Teri was challenging me or not; there seemed to be a hint of playful mockery in his voice.  I didn't mind. Unless there's a crystal clear sign of disrespect my strategy is to always take a student at face-value. It's a good strategy because someone might be genuinely asking a question, and if not it often disarms people when you reply to them with utmost sincerity. And humour. So I told him, that indeed, you can sing a lot of songs to that same do-wop figure.
  Jacob, very soon into the process said, "Hey man. I'm kind of falling asleep here, know what I'm sayin'? It's like there's no harmony here. Let's get with the harmony!"
  "Okay everybody, " I replied, "We don't want Jacob to fall asleep. But gotta crawl before you can walk. Let's do it again."
  And later from Teri:
  "So do you come back again to do this with us?"
  "No guys, but you never know what's gonna happen. Maybe I'll get busted and we can work together on these songs on the inside."
  This is the kind of verbal jujitsu I enjoy and the challenge is to maintain the student's interest, respect, and to be light but firm, and funny.
  The advantage here was that I was on the men's side. I hated school and all the bullshit that came with it, and to me this situation looked just like school, but much worse. More teachers, and you can never go home at the end of the day.  I completely sympathized with any rebellious behavior, held it in check, but somehow managed to give a nod and a wink every once in awhile to acknowledge the men's plight and to give a small release valve. That was my general intention anyway, and I think I succeeded.
  I also think, as I write this, that probably the best thing to do is foster a relationship over time with inmates. It's easy to go in once in a blaze of glory, but I'm sure it's more meaningful to keep showing up.
  How did they sound?
  We had a lot of work to do. A lot. And if my interactions with these men was not a challenge, the actual work was. Five men were singing in three-five different keys. At once. Everybody's rhythm was decent but I didn't quite know what to do with the fact that the guys weren't maintaining pitch, or even if they did, as soon as they got to the bridge, some would go off into a different key.
  The first challenge was to start the song. What note do you start a song if you have no piano, no harmonica, no nuthin'? I figured we'd just have one person start and go for broke. I couldn't begin to think whether it would be a good key for the lead singer or not, but this was problematic. I had Teri begin by just giving a note than a count off. Pretty soon Jacob, who turned out to be the most advanced singer suggested that he and Teri start together. I was OK with that, and interestingly enough they always started in tune with each-other (I suppose the human ear makes split-second adjustments, but I found it most surprising).
 Johnny suggested I sing with them at first, and so I did and progress was incremental. But I think there was some.
  Pretty early on I noticed that I had some fine-tuning to do myself. Racism comes in all forms and my own never fails to surprise me. I think the story I had in my head was that these would be five black men and that they would sound like all the do-wop groups I used to hear on the radio in Philly, or see occasionally on the street corner. So I was a little disappointed when I saw that the leader was a white man. And I just assumed that the three black men in the chorus would be able to sing magnificent harmonies. And the tall guy? Well he wasn't even a bass! Isn't the tall guy always a bass? And I was virtually ignoring Christopher, the short white-working class guy in the chorus. I posted the photos of guys playing music in jail above with my tongue in my cheek, but I think there are pictures in my head  that on some level I believe.  And how about the music I wrote--wasn't I enacting a stereotype? The very well-known one of the middle-class Jewish composer writing songs for do-wop and mo-town?!

Michael Masser Mo-Town composer

  I tried to clean up my shit as soon as I observed it. Racism comes in all sorts of weird forms, and in this one I was not favoring the white guys. And I was assuming that the men of color could all sing well, rather than helping them.
  So with all of that I did the best I could. We went over the song many times, we added a few things here and there, Rex stepping out and singing a line by himself, Teri echoing the melody, that sort of thing. There's not a whole lot you can teach people about music in thirty minutes but I made sure they listened to each other, and I decided that rather than continue it would be better to stop there and come back and work again after the theater portion. It's good to give your mind a break when you're learning something new, and sure enough when we went over it at the end it sounded better.
  But in just the time it took for the theater rehearsal and the bathroom break, Christopher had decided he'd rather "stick to acting", Rex had left for Ramadan and a new guy, Jamie, joined the group! And after it was all over, Johnny told me that he might have to let Jacob and Teri go, as they, and others hadn't been with the group from the start, and that the new people were being disruptive (they were, a bit). So what was the point of all that? Certainly not to stroke my ego. I didn't get to be Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver or Maria in The Sound of Music. I didn't take a rag-tag group of lousy singers and turn them into a crack team of Do-Wop superstars. But that was never my expectation. I came to the project with little expectation and more curiosity than anything. What's it like to teach a song to men in prison? I feel like I'm just finding out, and I want to learn more. What seemed important was that I showed up, and they showed up, and we sang, and it was fun.


  Johnny's guess about Puck was that he had gotten the swastika a long time ago. We talked about it afterward at Shari's (the restaurant choices are limited at 9:30 PM near Umatilla). He had told Johnny that he was a pagan and that he had the swastika because it was an ancient Indian and Aztec symbol. I wonder what he tells people when they ask him about the Iron Cross. But I don't care. Johnny was right about one thing: These men have been working on this play for quite some time and he has taken a rag-tag group and transformed them into a gem. I was mesmerized from scene 1. I had expected to have a patronizing attitude: "Oh isn't it great what Johnny's doing with these guys. They're all making such an effort." It is great what he's doing, and they're at a point where it seems effortless. All of the characters stood before me. There was Bottom, and there was Oberon, fair Hermia, Lysander, Egeus.
  Hermia was noteworthy. She was played by a transgendered man with corn rows and time, language, gender, and prison fell away when she spoke.
  I am curious about the state of homosexuality in prison. At least three of these men were completely out. Were they also out  in the larger population? I've certainly heard that sex between men is a practice in prison, but how about just gayness itself? Is there a gay clique, a gay gang? Has prison, like the outside society made some strides toward actual acceptance?
  Back in the classroom I had to use the bathroom and had to be escorted there by Lavon. The classroom was a throwback to my high school days in another way too. We were in a room and there were no cell phones, Blackberry's,  or iphones. No one was staring into a screen as their thumbs danced. And I couldn't send Jill a quick text in the bathroom as I might ordinarily in these situations.
  Another volunteer accosted Lavon and asked if she could take him to the Chaplain's office to get an uplifting movie. As we stood in the office I had the sudden impulse to steal something! What a coup that would be, to be able to commit theft, undetected, in prison! The thought suddenly passed as rationality broke through, and Lavon, I, and Jose, returned to our respective classrooms. As we went down the hallway  I noticed on the left that someone was teaching a meditation class. The men were sitting on the floor, in semi-darkness, in lotus and half-lotus poses.
  On the bathroom break I spoke with Christopher (the one with the sutures on the back of his neck). He had a twitchy (or tweaky) manner and ended most of his sentences with, "but iss cool, you know what I'm sayin' man?" He had just gotten news that his father wasn't permitted to have custody of his son, and that neither would he when he got out in 18 months; the state had ruled to put his child in foster care. I, of course, didn't know any details of his case and whether I would agree with the ruling, but before me was a man devastated, contemplating his son's loss. I couldn't blame him if he didn't feel like singing when we did round two at the end.
  I performed for the men, twice. It was a surprise. Johnny had tried to have me do a show in conjunction with all of this, but he had put in the request too late. He asked me, instead, out of the blue to sing. What do you sing? Folsom prison? I chose Jacque Brel's "Amsterdam", in English. When he asked me again, later, I sang "La Mattinata" by Leoncavallo.

I was a little worried that Mattinata wouldn't appeal to the inmates. It's in another language (Italian), very operatic. I was wrong--it was a hit! Why do I ever doubt the visceral power of the naked human operatic voice? I do try to walk the walk that opera is for everyone, but sometimes I doubt it.
  The rehearsal proceeded, we worked the song once more before we left (marginal improvement) and many of the men made it a point to shake my hand and thanked me for coming. Teri did too and said that we could make millions together someday.
  Lavon walked me back out through all the doors, through all the hallways--I even caught site of Lysander in the hallway and we waved goodbye to each other--out across the field, through the barbed wire enclosure, and past the metal detector to get my things (the guard found that a praying mantis had alighted on my back and removed it gently and gave it to Lavon).
  Johnny, Nancy, and I went to Shari's to fuel up our stomachs for the ride home (I bet the Two Rivers steak dinner tasted better) and we hugged goodbye at the gas station.
   The road before me is long--three hours long with plenty of time for AM radio that buzzed in an out, and even to pick up a hitch-hiker. Normally I don't do that these days, but there were lots of road crews working, and with his reflective jacket, helmet, and lunchbox, standing next to his broken-down car, he appeared truly stranded and truly legitamate. We chatted. He was from Montana and worked on bridges through-out the west. his company would fly him out and he'd be gone from his family--a wife and twins--two months at a time or more.
  He asked me if it was creepy being at the prison, and I told him that it wasn't at all. It was like being in high school. Same walls, same halls, same bullshit.
  But the analogy only goes so far. At the end of the day in high school I could go home. Prison is home for the inmates. And I'm sure as anything that if I go more deeply into the experience--return, volunteer--that the analogy becomes just a surface one. This is serious business, after all.
  And these are serious criminals. At least one in the room was a lifer.  This is all new to me, and thinking in any meaningful way about prison is new to me too. There's lots of questions I want answers to and I'm completely aware that some of these men are serving time and should be, some may have gotten a poor deal, some maybe are getting a better deal than they should, and perhaps some are innocent all together. At this point I can't pretend to have an educated or experiential opinion.
  I always wished I had started a band journal when I began Vagabond Opera. I'm thinking that this is just the beginning for me volunteering in prison. It will be interesting to see what I discover and I'll write and post about it.

  I'm driving home from Umatilla, listening to Coast to Coast on the AM, and thinking about the upcoming few days. I have a rehearsal with my friend the cellist, Ashia Grzesik, and then later next week my wife and child return from Memphis. The days in between are amorphous. Perhaps I'll see a movie, or get together with a friend and have a drink. Or maybe I'll stay home and cook.
  I suddenly appreciate, very very deeply, the amount of choice I have.

To see Johnny's work and donate to the foundation that supports it go to:

To volunteer at a prison in Oregon (I've decided to):

Follow-up note: The volunteer coordinator wanted to be sure that readers knew the inmates steak dinners were paid for by the inmates themselves. It was part of a fund-raiser for obtaining activities equipment. In other words those boys weren't eating cow meat on anybody's dime but their own.

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