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fall 2006 / young minds :: email this story to a friend

Prison Performing Arts: Theatre with Punch
By Debra M. Schwartz
Photo by Nan Rochberg

Unforgettable, heart-stopping moments are what you expect at a performance presented by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis or the Black Rep, our town's top theatre companies. But it's also what you'll get at a show produced by a less well-known local company with an arresting name: Prison Performing Arts. PPA specializes in productions of Shakespeare and the Greek classics, but in July the group put on a production of Crowns, a contemporary play about African-American women and the hats they wear. If it sounds like something you saw at the Rep a couple of seasons back, you're right. But a PPA show's got a different slant. This summer's production of Crowns was staged at the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, MO. The cast and crew: an unlikely bunch of amateurs who often perform at a professional or near-professional level from behind prison bars. Most of the performers hadn't worn a hat — much less a matching dress and high heels — in quite some time.

PPA also puts young people on the stage right here in town at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center. A recent summer showcase, highlighting the talents of the teenagers who are being held at "juvie" while their cases are adjudicated, packed as strong an emotional punch as you'll find in any professional theatre — though often in unexpected ways.

cast of Crowns Scene 1 (written by a group of young women in detention): A mother who had children too young must counsel her two teenage daughters. One is already pregnant and the second wants to emulate her sister. Jennifer, a tawny Beyoncé look-alike, plays Mom.

Suddenly, midway through the pitch to her daughters, Jennifer spits out, "I ain't no dyke!" Her hard gaze, now fixed accusingly on the spellbound audience, could win her an Oscar. But why this startling and vehement declaration? What does it have to do with the cautionary advice she's offering her daughters?

The audience, riveted, suddenly sees. Jennifer has broken from character. Very angry, for real, she's eyeing a young man in the audience, also serving time in detention. He's apparently made a derisive comment, which, though unheard in the audience, came through loud and clear up on stage. We wait, wondering if the action will spill beyond the footlights. It's heart-stopping for sure.

Quickly, teacher/director Jackie Masei intervenes to get the scene rolling again. But it's no use. Distracted and seething, Jennifer cannot continue. Jackie assures the audience that the girls "tore up" the scene in rehearsal, and we've got to be satisfied with that. It's the first time I've seen a live performance fall apart, but it's a good reminder of the special challenges that PPA's Artistic Director Agnes Wilcox and her battery of teachers — including Jackie, choir director Lisa Peppers, dance instructor Leslie Arbogast and drama teacher Erica Sutherlin — face behind the scenes.

Whenever I attend a PPA performance at the detention center I come away thinking that these kids could be my own. I've got a son at Columbia and a daughter at Smith, two of the most elite colleges in the country. But the kids in detention demonstrate the same hunger to learn, the same willingness to work and the same need to be recognized for a job well done. The only difference is that my kids, through an accident of birth, had a chance.

But I have to admit, though I've seen my kids plenty mad — mainly at me! — I've never seen them seethe like Jennifer. I don't know what she did to get herself thrown into detention, but I wouldn't want to meet her on the street with an attitude like this. It makes PPA's successes with its unlikely casts even more spectacular.

Take, for example, a scene from The Color Purple, presented at the very same talent showcase. This one featured three young men, including Demeko, who was brave enough to take on the part of the much-abused girl, Celie. Before diving into the scene, Demeko and Lamar, another member of the cast, addressed the audience directly, explaining that when they study with PPA, not only do they learn to act, but they also master new words. Add "feminism" to this summer's vocabulary list.

"It means respecting women and believing in their rights," declared Demeko, in his prepared essay. "It's so important to me because it made me more interested in women and it also helped me learn about them." As he finished, Demeko proudly announced that he was a feminist.

The play hadn't even begun and already the audience was thunderstruck. The last time I met a proud feminist? Hold on. Let me think.

Lamar followed Demeko with an off-the-cuff riff. They call it "extemp" in high school debate clubs. Pledging to respect women and not get into the baby-making business until he was older, Lamar turned to the girls packed together in the front row. Confronting them directly, in a way that would surely win big points in forensics, he concluded strongly. "But first you've got to respect yourselves." With that, he strutted from the cafeteria "stage," followed by great applause.

In the days since the PPA summer show, Lamar, Demeko and Jennifer have stuck with me. Was Jennifer silly and immature for letting a dumb boy in the audience get the best of her? Was she out of line at all, or was she simply being the best feminist she could be, speaking up and defending herself at all costs against an untrue, carefully timed attack? Or was she an anti-feminist, who failed to recognize her solidarity with all women?

I really didn't expect to go home thinking about the performance. Just kids, you know, and "bad" ones at that. But there you go. Theatre with a lasting punch. Definitely PPA.

Debra M. Schwartz serves on PPA's board of directors. She is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.

For admission information to future productions, contact PPA in University City, at 314-727-5355.

© 2006 The Commonspace