‘Our Town’ in Sing Sing
Updated: Jan 21, 2019
Seventy-five years ago, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” first spun its simple spell on Broadway.
Three generations later, the story of daily life, love, marriage and dying in Grover’s Corners, N.H., is still the among the 10 most-produced works on American high-school stages. Every year, one or two schools in the Lower Hudson Valley can be counted on to turn to Wilder. This fall, productions are planned at Valhalla, Lakeland and Brewster high schools.
It may be the only visit to Grover’s Corners these students make — a universal rite of passage that, a generation from now, might conjure a fleeting flash of recognition when their own children stage the play: “Oh, right ... Emily Webb ...”
The classic play’s message, however, is timeless: Savor life’s little moments, take time to notice things, live in the present.
While Wilder tackles the universal and the eternal, directors still have to translate that to the ears of contemporary actors.
When we learned that a group of inmates was staging the play inside the walls of Sing Sing, we were intrigued to see how incarcerated men would take to “Our Town,” encountering the play as adults, not teens. We set out to capture their journey with the play, in rehearsal, performance and beyond, as the lessons learned in bringing Grover’s Corners to life behind razor-wired fences could bear fruit when these men are eventually released.
‘Everything in prison is a waiting game’
Darkness and light.
There is plenty of both in “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
From January to May, men who live in one of the darkest places imaginable — Sing Sing Correctional Facility — got a glimpse of light, rehearsing and staging the classic work under the auspices of Katonah’s Rehabilitation Through the Arts.
“Our Town” might seem a strange choice for a theater program in a men’s prison. On its face, it is largely about a girl from New Hampshire at the turn of the 20th century who learns too late to savor the light held in life’s simplest moments.
There would appear to be little to treasure about life in Sing Sing, where inhabitants want to rush time along.
“In here, time is magnified because everything in prison is a waiting game,” said Jermaine Archer, who played the Stage Manager, the play’s narrator.
“You’re waiting for your cell to open. You’re waiting for them to feed you. You’re waiting for them to let me into the yard. And we’re all waiting to go home. Of course you’re wishing 20 years flies by,” he said. “But this play tells you to stop and pay attention.”
At a pre-show pep talk, director Kate Powers drove the point home.
“What’s this play about?” she asked the cast and crew.
“Our town,” they said.
“Yes,” she said. “And it’s about paying attention. We can make a change. We want our audience to pay attention, to watch us and pay attention.”
Chances are, if people remember anything about “Our Town,” it’s the adorable soda-fountain scene when, over strawberry ice cream sodas, Emily Webb tells off George Gibbs for being stuck up. He takes her words to heart, decides then and there to marry her, then discovers he doesn’t have the money to pay for the sodas.
But to capture the light best, Wilder wrote the darkness of Act 3, when Emily, now married to George, dies in childbirth and is borne up the hill to the cemetery and laid to rest among her people. Surrounded by the town’s dead, Emily begs the Stage Manager to let her go back once more to the world of the living. Begrudgingly, he lets her relive — but not change the events of — her 12th birthday. She quickly realizes that the living aren’t so much living as surviving.
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? — every, every minute?” she asks the Stage Manager.
“No,” he says. “The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”
Powers played Mrs. Webb when she was in high school, in Clarence, N.Y., near Buffalo.
“So many high schools do this play and I know why they do it,” she said. “But with respect, it is a very unusual 16- or 17- year-old who can really get their arms around the fundamental questions of the play. People tend to think this play is the soda fountain scene, about a young couple falling in love, an American valentine of a play. It’s heart- breakingly wrenching stuff.”
The message hits home at Sing Sing.
“This is a group of people who really get regret,” said Powers. “I said to them ‘If you could go back to the day before you agreed to get involved with whatever landed you in here, if you could go relive that day — but you couldn’t change a thing that happened afterwards — would you do it?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely not. No way.’”
Then they hedged, she said.
“‘If I could change it...’”
She quickly reminded them: “But Emily can’t change anything because it’s done. It’s over.”
Later, Powers recalled, “one of the guys said ‘We’re kind of like the dead in the cemetery in “Our Town.” The only difference is, eventually, we get to go home and make different choices.’ ”
‘Who do you want coming home?’
That inmates in a maximum-security prison are doing plays might rankle violent-crime victims and their loved ones.
Virginia Perez, a Westchester County legislator representing Yonkers, understands that feeling. Her brother, Martin, was murdered.
“At the beginning, I was angry,” she said. “I was like ‘These guys are not here to play fun and games. My brother is not here to see his daughter be in her kindergarten play, so why are these guys participating in a play.’ But after meeting prisoners face to face, you get a different perspective.
“We have to try creative ways to stop and correct their behavior. If we do that, we can save the lives of two people: of the prisoner by helping him turn his life around, and of the potential future victim,” Perez said.
The men in “Our Town” have been convicted of armed robbery, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon and murder. But RTA volunteers don’t ask what their crimes are. All they ask is that they come to the program with a desire to change, to be open to the artistic process that can teach them life skills they’ll need when they are released.
Former Sing Sing warden Brian Fischer, who retired as state prisons commissioner in April, is an RTA champion. He was named “honorary mayor of Our Town” at one of the Sing Sing performances.
“We can’t forget the victims,” he said in an earlier interview. “But as a society, we need to invest our energy in making (the inmates) better people because they’re going to go home. They did wrong. They admit it. Their punishment is going to jail, not being punished in jail. That’s an important factor.”
The financial investment is small. RTA’s annual budget is $225,000, the bulk of which is provided by foundations, benefactors and grants.
Founder and Katonah resident Katherine Vockins said one-quarter of the budget comes from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in the form of out-of-pocket expenses — for transportation, scripts, sets and costumes — at the five prisons where RTA operates. According to department spokeswoman Linda Foglia, the state’s annual outlay for RTA is around $50,000, about what it costs New York taxpayers to house one inmate for one year. At Sing Sing, the state spent about $13,300 last year on RTA expenses, Foglia said.
Director Powers said she hears it weekly: Why should convicted criminals be having fun, putting on plays?
“My answer to that is: Who do you want coming home? Do you want a guy who has been parked in a box to stew in his own misery for 25 years? Do you think that’s going to be good for the community? Is that working for anyone?” she said.
“Or you can have a guy who said, at some point in his incarceration: ‘I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I want to be a better man. How do I do that?’ And give him some opportunities and some tools.”
‘At night, away from the stage, I began to analyze myself as a character and how I acted on the stage of life.’
The tools RTA has to give — collaboration, problem-solving, memorization, critical thinking, perseverance — can help the men learn to make different choices.
Founded in 1996 as a theater workshop by Vockins, RTA now has volunteers teaching creative writing, dance and movement, visual art, Shakespeare, improvisation, voice, scene-study and monologues in five maximum- and medium- security prisons in Westchester, Sullivan and Dutchess counties.
The nonprofit’s philosophy is that, since more than 95 percent of inmates are released after serving their time, the arts can prepare them for life after prison, not by making them actors or even, as some suggest, better con men. Going to rehearsal regularly models the outside-the-walls task of going to work regularly. Working on a scene — say, between Doc Gibbs and his son, George — mirrors the collaboration of co-workers on a project, and the parenting skill of talking to a son.
Sean “Dino” Johnson, 48, has been out of Sing Sing for a decade and now leads gang-prevention programs. He serves on the nonprofit’s board.
“Before RTA, I couldn’t say more than two words,” Johnson said. “I kept my circles very small. I didn’t like dealing with a lot of personalities. I’d sit in the corner and just watch everybody else.
“When you start studying characters, you realize the traits you have in your own character,” he said. “At night, away from the stage, I began to analyze myself as a character and how I acted on the stage of life. It gave me a stage where I could figure out who I wanted to be, what character traits I needed to develop.”
Omar “Sweets” Williams, 45, from Wyandanch on Long Island, who played Dr. Gibbs, called joining RTA the hardest step of his life.
“I was scared of failure, scared of embarrassment,” he said. “But to see certain people take steps to better themselves, it makes the guy who might have been a little scared or pessimistic about taking that jump, it affords him that freedom or takes away that scariness that he would have had.”
Charles Garner, 38, was the play’s stage manager, not to be confused with the Stage Manager character.
“One of the reasons I joined RTA was to work on my people skills,” the soft-spoken Garner said. “The closer I’m getting to being released, the more I need to work on those. What prison does, if you don’t interact, especially with people on the outside, your people skills, your interpersonal skills, they diminish.”
The payback for prisoners is clear, but why would the women volunteers choose to spend time in a maximum-security prison?
“These people are starved for human interaction,” said actress Josie Whittlesey. “Some of the men, especially the men who grew up with sisters, are used to having women as confidantes. I hear unbelievable stories from them. They want to confide in a woman. They can’t get that there.”
Powers is more direct.
“It turns out that they’re people.”
“Our Town” was the first RTA production not performed in the prison’s auditorium, called “the chapel,” which was under repair in the spring. It was performed in the Visitors Room, which the inmates call “The Dance Floor,” just inside the famous prison’s front gate.
The vast room was “Our Town” ordinary, the floor a checkerboard linoleum, the south wall lined with vending machines offering ice cream, coffee, sandwiches, bottled water. There is a microwave. Chairs were arranged in neat rows on three sides of the makeshift stage, with two wide aisles granting access to Grover’s Corners.
It could have been any school lunchroom or community center, if not for the armed officers and the 14-foot chain-link fence topped with a double ring of razor wire just beyond the windows.
When Powers told the inmates that they’ll perform in the Visitors Room, some of them said, “I don’t know what that room looks like. Can you describe it to me?”
They had never had a visitor.
‘If he deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’
Grover’s Corners has an outsider: Simon Stimson, the church organist who wanders the town, drunk. Simon kills himself and spends a bitter eternity on that hill overlooking the town.
“That’s what it was to be alive,” he snaps. “To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years.”
Shedrick Blackwell, 46, who played Stimson, said there is plenty of dark in Sing Sing.
“The punishment is every night when you go to bed and the cellblock gets silent and you are left with absolutely nobody but you and all your ghosts and all your sins. And they do rear their head nightly. The punishment is how you deal with that. But there’s humanity in here.”
He said he understands why people would question prisoners doing plays, but shared a story.
“I heard about a deserter in the Napoleonic wars. He was captured and they were getting ready to hang him and his mother appealed to the emperor: ‘Please, show my son some mercy.’ And the emperor said, ‘Mercy? He’s a coward and a deserter. He doesn’t deserve mercy.’ And she said, ‘That’s exactly it. If he deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’
“Many of us are the most undeserving of mercy, which makes us the most entitled the mercy and the sympathy and the advocacy and the empathy. The punishment is self-induced, but so is the remedy. RTA won’t heal you. It will open your eyes to the remedies that exist within yourself. You have to get out the mortar and pestle and grind it up and apply the salve to your soul and go forward from there.”
And that starts with Simon Stimson?
“I don’t think he gets enough salve,” Blackwell said, laughing.
‘I’m living my second act right now.’
Two 2011 studies — one by John Jay College professor Lorraine Moller, one by Purchase College’s Suzanne Kessler — demonstrated that RTA has a positive impact on inmate behavior and on educational aspirations behind bars.
Jermaine Archer is a living example of how RTA changes lives.
For years, he lived in A Block, Sing Sing’s warehouse of prisoners, five stories stacked with 88 cells, sharing a back wall with another five stories of 88 cells. The noise, he says, is constant, with radios competing for attention in all different languages, officers on intercoms, the bang of closing doors. Sitting on his bed, he could reach his 6-foot wingspan and touch both walls, the toilet, his locker and the cell bars.
His first night in Sing Sing he remembers thinking: I am in a cage. If there was a fire, I couldn’t get out.
Now he’s a model prisoner, rewarded with a move to the relative quiet of Sing Sing’s Honor Block, where prisoners can cook, do their own laundry and exercise in their own yard. This summer, he earned his bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences from Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison through Mercy College.
“I read somewhere that there are no second acts in life,” he said. “I disagree. I’m living my second act right now.”
Archer said he has been thinking about Emily Webb and the idea of living in the present, of being alive every moment, of seeing light in such a dark place.
“Is it really healthy to be present every moment, like Emily asks, in a setting like this?” he asked. “In here, you’re dealing with ignorance, you’re dealing with violence, with humiliation. In here, you try to log off, like a computer. We try to log off and say it’s safer for me not to fully experience this experience that I’m going through.
“But this is still life. Maybe it’s not about Jaguars and money. Maybe, when I saw those geese when I was coming down the hill today, I could appreciate that moment. We have a cat in the building where I live. I get to see the cat every day. We have the river, a million-dollar view. So I had to learn to really change my perspective on what I enjoy.”
Archer’s transformation through the arts has given him hope.
“I’m leaving prison with an appreciation for the arts, three college degrees, an understanding of classical music, knowing how to get in touch with my emotions and feeling free to do that because of RTA. They say there are no second acts; I’m looking forward to my third act.”
‘I can’t look at her because I’ll cry if I do.’
Volunteer actresses take the few women’s roles in this and other plays at Sing Sing.
In “Our Town,” Kate Kenney played Emily, Josie Whittlesey played Mrs. Webb, and Khristal Curtis played Mrs. Gibbs. Looking back weeks after the Sing Sing production, Kenney said the journey was powerful. “I miss the whole experience of coming to light with those guys,” she said. “Individually and collectively and as people and as characters, there was a lot of light that happened in that process. And I miss that light and the discoveries.”
She said she also missed the emotion that bubbled just beneath the surface.
“At one point, Kate Powers said to Jermaine: ‘You stopped making eye contact with Emily at the end. You need to have a moment.’ And he said ‘I can’t look at her because I’ll cry if I do.’
“It’s amazing that Thornton Wilder is reaching people like that. It’s not me. I’m the medium he’s using. But that’s the work — that it makes me cry to have this experience with you, or it makes me feel something to see what you’re going through. That’s the work we need these guys to do, so that they’re ready to come back.”
“Our Town” was staged with the audience on three sides, meaning that the audience could look through the scene and see other audience members’ reactions.
‘At night, away from the stage, I began to analyze myself as a character and how I acted on the stage of life. It gave me a stage where I could figure out who I wanted to be, what character traits I needed to develop.’
SEAN ‘DINO’ JOHNSON, former Sing Sing inmate, current RTA board member
At one of two performances for inmates, the men laughed when Mrs. Webb scolded her children, and giggled at the slow-motion way the dead of Grover’s Corners took their places in the cemetery.
Just like the invited civilian audience two days later, they laughed and cried at the unbearable sweetness of the soda-fountain scene, and they laughed when George’s friends razzed him at his wedding.
Then came Emily’s final farewell, as she resigns herself to the hereafter.
“Good-by, good-by, world,” she says. “Good-by, Grover’s Corners ... Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking ... and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new- ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
The civilians cried.
And the inmates cried.
It turns out that they’re people.
People ready to pay attention.
People who have glimpsed the light in a world of darkness.
BY THE NUMBERS
2.5 million: People behind bars in the U.S.
7 million: Those behind bars or on parole or probation.
97 percent: Those inmates who are eventually released.
50 percent: Those who return to prison with three years of release.
$55,000 to $60,000: Cost to New York taxpayers to house one inmate one year.
55,000: Number of prisoners in New York’s 60 prison facilities.
150: Men and women served by Rehabilitation Through the Arts each year.