I spent the day preceding our visit being transferred around on the phone into oblivion, from one CO to a Major, to someone who was “supposed to know what’s goin’ on with that.” All the while biting my tongue, the inside of my cheek, hearing myself use a sickly sweet tone so they wouldn’t hang up on me—which is common practice if you at all let on you’re being mistreated or that they’re frustratingly ignorant. I said I was a member of the press, was bringing art students with me…I am directed to someone who will call me back later…
My goal: ensure that the three of us visiting our friend were in fact on the correct guest list for this special occasion. Unlike a normal visit, we couldn’t just be on the regular approved visitation list, no, we had to be on a special guest list this time.
The occasion: to see LeLe play cello (hell yeah, she plays like three instruments) in the “Shakespeare Corrected” adaptation of As You Like It (one of my personal favorite plays).
When the person who was “supposed to know what’s goin’ on with that” finally got in touch with me she said I needed to send an email verifying who I was along with the others. I did this. We sent 8 emails back and forth before it was apparent she would not confirm one way or another if one of us was on the list or not.
I was furious—hours of effort, still no answer. Were we about to drive three hours only to be turned away and miss our friend’s show? Something that she had been writing and calling about how dope it had been for her, getting to practice, rehearse, feel a little freer for those 4 hours a day. I’d have to wait until the day of our trip at 8am to try calling again to confirm these things.
I called, was transferred twice, finally got connected to a new Major (after being told to call back in 20 minutes) I had not spoken with previously. She informed me that the initial lists had been misplaced. She couldn’t find any information or record of our intended visit anywhere. My stomach dropped. I name dropped everyone I had spoke to, said how I understood “these things happen” (I simultaneously punched the glove box in front of me) but that the trip was crucial for me to bring these “students” to and that I had a deadline from an editor, could she “please make an accommodation?” It worked. “Whites whiting to whites,” who’s surprised? I used the only language I knew would convince this person. She conceded and would leave all of our names at the front with passes; we would be allowed to see the production. I felt fucking angry and gross and like I should get a goddamn Oscar. I was also relieved. We wouldn’t miss seeing LeLe.
The experience getting inside the prison was also vastly different this time. The front lobby where screening and signing-in take place was teeming with people. Tons of families and friends had come to see the production. It was chaos. None of the COs knew what to do, each looking at the other, shouting blame, waving people through in varying degrees of being checked-in. We were some of those fortunate. I name dropped the Major, said our passes were waiting, they interpreted this as us being volunteers for the production. We nodded when they implied this. We went through without being screened. Without being shook-down. I had to roll down C’s sleeve on her shirt, but shit, that was it. This was new and uncharted territory for us. We were silent in disbelief as we walked through the corridors toward the auditorium.
Once inside the auditorium there were no COs around at all. We erupted:
“Holy shit!” “What did you tell them on the phone?!” “We could have brought a phone in!” “We could have brought shit in for our girl!” “Fuck that was weird!”
It took a while for us to settle down. We were watching the women busy themselves with costumes, the set, setting up the mics, the lights, talking with each other. The auditorium was small, but we were all amazed it existed at all. There was a nice size stage, with backstage area, auditorium seating (like in a movie theatre) and a dark red crushed velvet curtain. The women performers would peek out from behind the curtain and wave. It was weird. It felt like we were in a high school or college, not a prison for just a few hours. We were informed (by a really lame, “do-gooder” as Michele Wallace would call him) that after the performance we would be able to visit with our friends and family and take photos (to be purchased with commissary of course) in the auditorium without them having to be stripped searched and escorted into the visitation room. Our collective hearts leapt!
We got to see LeLe before the show began with her cello and the rest of the production’s band. She was beaming. They were set up at the back of the house, and the final light adjustments were made, the do-gooder spoke about himself from the front of the house, and then the show began. It was a very full house, babies and extended family, abuelas, cousins, aunties, all got to see their fam give a truly incredible performance.
Alisha played that giant cello, her long resonant bowing creating these deep beautiful sounds, leading the band.
The pride you feel when you see your friend totally fucking slay is a damn good feeling.
I’d be remiss not to say that I have seen this particular play performed professionally and by amateur but nonetheless trained actors at least a dozen times (I got a damn degree with a focus in Shakespeare studies) and this production put all those to shame. These women lit that stage up. We were laughing, so hard we cried. We were clapping, so hard our hands hurt. My face hurt so bad just from grinning so damn much. Seeing good theatre is one thing, seeing people who aren’t meant to feel good, feel good, that was unreal. The poise, the hood, the understanding of all those lines, they fucking blew us all away. I’m still thinking of the stage presence between Orlando and Rosalind. Pure magic.
The play ran about two hours without an intermission. When it ended we all gave a standing ovation, they had to do another full curtain call cause none of us would calm down or cease clapping! It was amazing. After an announcement was made again about getting to mingle it was like two giant waves crashing and collapsing into one another. Us pouring from the audience onto the stage, the women jumping down off the stage and rushing toward us. Alisha ran back stage to deposit her cello, we hugged and hugged, we got to take hilarious photos (overpriced but we were gonna put more on her books soon anyway and who knew the next time an opportunity like this would happen). I was heartsick Aaron couldn’t be with us for this, so was Alisha.
We sat in the auditorium talking with her friends inside and their families for another half hour. LeLe was telling us about some new dirt, updating us about getting fired from the kitchen because she was “fraternizing too much with the Black inmates.” Yeah. That was a real fucking thing a CO said to her. She lost her job because this racist CO didn’t like her talking with her friends. Of course she was livid. She talked a lot about how cool the experience of the play had been. At one point the artistic director, a lady do-gooder, came up and said hello, Alisha told her how awesome this was, that she wished they could do plays all the time, that it helped, a lot, and the do-gooder replied, “Well you can do it again next year!” I shot back, “No, not if she’ll be free by then. That’s our goal, getting her out of here.”
Back to reality. This is a prison. Our friend won’t get to do anything else remotely like this. That do-gooder gets to redefine these folks by their being trapped here. Our next visit won’t be like this. This is a one shot deal.
We talked until we were told we had to leave, which was way too soon. We hugged a lot more, blew a lot of kisses as Alisha had to return to her block. We waived until we turned a corner and couldn’t see her. Standing in the parking lot, changing back into clothes we preferred, we smoked cigarettes and marveled at the bizarre experience. I responded to a text from a friend who was dealing with some whorearchical garbage from a fellow sex worker, tweeted an update about our visit, and googled the nearest Culver’s for our car-dinner.
On the drive outside of Decatur we wondered out loud about what it would be like, if say you did fuck up, harm somebody, whatever, and you were just compelled to learn Shakespeare and talk to the people you harmed. It was a weird and abstract conversation but it was us trying to process and translate our impressions about what had just happened, how different it felt—up to a point. -Red