By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
If theatre at its best is the communal exploration of our shared humanity, then some of the most powerful theatre in Colorado over the past two years has been performed in some of our 22 state prisons through a remarkable program called the DU Prison Arts Initiative.
And a whole lot of it took place over three hours on the night of November 21 alone.
Nine months into the pandemic that has cherry-picked Colorado’s vulnerable inmate population, DU PAI pulled off its most significant accomplishment to date: An unprecedented virtual showcase called “A/Live Inside” that invited viewers from around the world inside multiple prison facilities across Colorado to witness dozens of incarcerated artists and storytellers share their stories through theatre, song, music, dance, visual art, film and just plain real talk.
More than 2,000 watched an evening of entertainment and inspiration that played out a little like a telethon – but the only currency being solicited on this night was compassion and understanding. Audiences logged in from Australia to Alaska to all 22 of Colorado’s state prisons. In a history-making moment, every TV inside every Department of Corrections facility that night was tuned to “A/Live Inside,” which managed to connect an entire prison population watching from the isolation of a COVID lockdown.
A recording of the mesmerizing evening has since been posted to YouTube and is now closing in on 10,000 additional views.
At the very least, “A/Live Inside” presented audiences with a way of looking at the prison population in a new and more empathetic way.
“Involvement in the arts lets incarcerated students be part of something larger than themselves again,” said Dr. Ashley Hamilton, co-founder and Executive Director of DU PAI. “From that space comes the opportunity to create healing for self and community, which opens up the possibility for transformation in people, spaces and systems.”
This all comes on the heels of a remarkable 2019 when Hamilton and her team helped inmates from Sterling Correctional Facility stage their own production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and residents of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility stage “A Christmas Carol.” They also launched the prison newspaper Inside Report, an award-winning podcast called "With(in)" and a newsletter called "Reverberations."
“A/Live Inside,” Hamilton said, was “an epic lift” that involved hundreds of people on both sides of the bars, all navigating huge logistical challenges brought on by the pandemic.
But the only reason any of this is happening, she said, is because of the vision of one man: Dean Williams, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC).
“I truly believe Mr. Williams and his team are leading the way for criminal justice reform in the United States,” said Hamilton.
So why has so much effort been put into this particular project? Why does any of this matter?
“First, because nothing good comes from making prisons any more harsh and punitive than they already are,” Williams said.
“The journey that Ashley and DU PAI and the CDOC have been on is an effort toward humanizing prisons … and doing something about the horrible recidivism rate in this state and in this country.”
Williams firmly believes that giving incarcerated persons a purpose, and a project, also makes prisons safer for everyone.
“I believe that prison can be a place of justice as well as mercy,” Williams said. “I believe that there can be accountability as well as redemption. Yes, we also believe that these men and women need to take ownership for what has happened in their lives. But there also must be an opportunity for them to ask for forgiveness. ‘A/Live Inside’ is just one more stake in the ground that says, 'We can do our justice systems differently.’ ”
“A/Live Inside” was one remarkable example of the power of storytelling after another. The program began with samples of visual art from “Chained Voices,” an online prison art gallery made up of more than 400 paintings, drawings, crafts, jewelry boxes, Dream Catchers and even a homemade Fender guitar that are available for the public to purchase at chainedvoices.org.
More than 120 artists from 17 Colorado prisons are represented in the gallery, many of whom were teenagers when they entered the prison system. One is Amanda DeLeon, who made a colorful collage that spelled out “HOPE” from paper and fabric (pictured at the top of this page).
“This is what comes from my heart when I think of something bigger than myself,” she said. “No matter what I get hit with in life, as long as I keep hope, I can get through it. What can bloom from the darkness? It’s your choice.”
To qualify for the program, each submitting artist had to share what they would do with any proceeds their pieces might bring from an online sale. One wrote: "I would buy boots for when I get out." Another said he would buy art supplies for his daughter. Another said simply, "Phone time." And yet another said he would donate any proceeds because that would feed his hungry spirit. "I tried feeding it sausages and Swiss rolls, but it kept getting sick," he said.
Viewers heard acoustic guitarist Travis Barnes, a DU PAI group leader serving life without parole, sing “You Lost Yourself,” a powerful, original song that all but resurrects the soulful singer Ted Hawkins himself.
They also were treated to a variety of short plays, dances and testimonials developed over the past year through classes led by DU PAI Teaching Artists.
In January, a writing team conducted interviews with 60 inmates, lawyers, politicians, victims, survivors and incarcerated people, and they turned them into short plays under the collective title “If Light Closed its Eyes” – eight of which were performed for “A/Live Inside” by inmates and DU acting alumni. One was an evocative group dance sequence that was filmed in the Sterling prison yard. In another, a young man tells his story of entering prison for the first time at 19 and asking, “How do you heal the divide between harm and forgiveness?” In yet another, the interview subject is the CDOC's own Director of Prisons offering his perspective. And the actor playing him and giving voice to his story for the camera is an incarcerated student actor named Terry Mosley Jr. (pictured).
“We filmed everything at Sterling in one day,” Hamilton said. Which was lucky, because the prison went on COVID lockdown the very next day, and has been there ever since.
“We just barely made it happen," she said. "It felt like we were outrunning the second wave.”
Audiences later saw a 10-minute play called "The Forgotten," written by Greg Romero, a man serving life in the Fremont prison and performed by actors from the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. That grew from a statewide, 12-week correspondence course that produced 21 plays newly compiled into a published anthology called “Imagining Worlds: Plays by Artists from Colorado Prisons.” Order here
A scene from 'Antigone,' directed by Julie Rada and filmed at the Limon Correctional Facility.
There was a taped excerpt from a planned public production of Sophocles’ “Antigone” that Julie Rada directed for a cast from the Limon Correctional Facility. After months of preparation, the play was a few weeks from opening in March when COVID intervened. Rada is now reimagining the project as a full-length film that will be launched early next year. Billy J. Edwards-El, who plays the king whose warring sons kill each other, called it a monumental and humbling experience. Rada chose the 7,000-year-old play, she said, "because its themes of power, family loyalty and conformity are timeless."
Audiences also were shown a mini-documentary on the making of both the prison podcast and statewide newspaper. The program wrapped with a roundtable discussion with incarcerated participants and prison officials moderated by DU Provost Mary Clark.
It was a big night, with a big purpose.
“We had no idea much loss and grief would come from COVID,” Hamilton said. “But we also didn’t know how much creativity, sheer grit and resilience would forge new ways of being and creating.”
For this one night nearing the end of a tragic year when the light did indeed close its eyes, it was a thrill to celebrate the boundless creativity and humanity of incarcerated people along with thousands of other viewers.
“A/Live Inside” serves as a reminder, Hamilton said, “that since the beginning of time, humans have used the arts in our darkest moments to find our way through heartache and pain and grief.”
Video: 'A/Live Inside': Watch the whole thing
'A/Live Inside' Creatives
DU PAI Staff
About DU Prison Arts Initiative
The DU Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) generates creative and collaborative learning experiences that enrich the lives of people who are incarcerated and shift the conversation about prison. As part of DU’s commitment to the public good, DU PAI programming opens dialogue between incarcerated people and their communities. The program seeks to empower individuals to see themselves as leaders capable of creating meaningful change, both inside prison systems and well beyond. Go to the website.