Samara Gaev is a “proud mama bear.” At least that is how the Founder and Artistic Director of Truthworker Theatre tells me she feels after the premiere of Re:Vision | A State of Emergence, the most recent installment of her company’s trilogy focused on the prison industrial complex. No sooner do the words leave her mouth than a steady stream of the 18 to 24-year-old Truthworker company members begin to exit the Jack theater, each covered in their post-performance glow, apologizing for interrupting the interview, giving her long hugs and asking the call time for their next show.
Gaev is also the company’s producer, choreographer, fundraiser, publicist and dramaturg extraordinaire. She fiercely brings Broadway-ready theater to life on a limited budget. It is obvious from her interaction with these young people that she serves as the heart and soul of Truthworker. Gaev tells me she is honored to be a nurturer and counselor to the dozen young performers, each of whose lives has been directly impacted by mass incarceration and who are all “holding exuberant amounts of trauma.”
Truthworker’s first production in the prison trilogy, In|Prism: Boxed in and Blacked Out in America, examines solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, tracing the spiritual journey of California death row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters. Their second production, Bar Code is an analysis of the school to prison pipeline, drawing connections from Willie Lynch to Trayvon Martin.
Re:Vision, the third installment, explores the question: What does it mean to come home after incarceration? For Truthworker, the answers are found in rhizomic community relationships, told in three short plays narrating the impact of incarceration and reentry on families.
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Earlier that evening, I enter Jack on a Saturday night to the sound of Erykah Badu singing “Hip Hop is bigger than the government.” The house is packed from wall-to-wall, with a diversity in age and ethnicity that I expect in Brooklyn but don’t always see when I attend theater productions. The lights on the stage were red and projected images of urban sprawl across the set.
This performance is not for us the audience, Gaev later explained, it is a space where these young actors are viscerally working through narratives for their own healing. The audience is invited to cry, laugh, stomp and dance in support of the work. Each act focuses on a story of a single family. The play introduces us to Derek (Carnell Keith Steward Jr.), a young man who is struggling to reestablish the bond he shares with his father who has recently returned from prison. We meet Maria (Jazmin Luperena), a young, drug addicted mother who is eventually incarcerated. Maria’s children are carrying the weight of being forced into the foster care system. And we meet Nile (Cory Fletcher), who is incarcerated for possession the same night his brother is killed.Through several surreal fantasy scapes, we learn that Nile is suffering from PTSD to the point of mental and emotional collapse.
Choreography drives the emotional arch of the work, shifting between multiple hip-hop dance aesthetics such as jazz-funk, break dancing and stepping. Stepping or step-dancing is a form of percussive dance in which the participant’s entire body is used as an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through a mixture of footsteps, spoken word and hand claps.
The production uses hypnotic surrealism and shadow play to conjure and reveal the mental experiences of the characters — methods drawn from the concept of syncretic theater, which utilizes performance modes of both European and indigenous cultures as an act of decolonizing the production stage. We see the characters. We feel their movements. We encounter their interior.
Documentary film excerpts are also deployed to frame character’s lives within larger political contexts such as Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs and the Black Lives Matter Movement. This historical framework highlights the collective nature of the unfolding personal narratives; how black, brown and poor communities are the most vulnerable to waves of reactionary policies and state violence.
As Re:Vision illustrates, the prison industrial complex interrupts families and it is not easy to pick up where you left off. Mass incarceration creates gaps in time, space and memory that manifest in the form of isolation, anger and crisis. And yet this play is carefully crafted to grant the audience emotional respite. There is enough comedy and vocality built into the performance that it is possible to find joy amongst the ruins.
Another method of emotional rescue happens between acts when Gaev takes the stage and speaks directly to the audience. During the first intermission, Gaev asks the audience to participate in creating a group poem. She invites us to conjure in ourselves the feeling of coming home and to write about it, selecting a small chorus of volunteers to share their writing on stage. Although at first reluctant, the chosen six audience members stand together and speak one by one, taking turns sharing their writing. The result is an improvisational poem that went something like: Coming home feels like distance, like hell, like an adventure, like uncertainty. Coming home sounds like silence, like scary, like alone. Coming home smells like fear, like Heaven, like coconut oil, like Sofrito, like being born, like a new beginning, like I missed everything, like being unwanted and like they wanted me to fail.
During the second intermission, Gaev asks for a steady percussion beat. Then, like the soul composer that she is, Gaev orchestrates an improvisational song led with the audience and eventually joined by the company members. These beautiful moments of spontaneity prove that community, poetry and song have the power to heal.
As part of their training, Truthworker company members are exposed to Eastern meditation practices, ceremonial sage burning and yoga. These rituals are two fold, serving as both acting methods but also as models for stress reduction — creating a sacred space for the young people the theater company serves.
James Farza, the 20-year-old cast member who plays Maria’s son, tells me he is grateful to have a platform like Truthworker. He views meditation as an important aspect of the work and says it has helped him not only mend broken relationships in his life but created a path of self-determination towards his own healing.
Re:Vision was written using a method known as devised theater. Devised scripts originate not from a writer or writers, but from collaborative, usually improvisatory, workshops involving a group of people. The strength of devised theater is that it uniquely builds community by manifesting art. The weakness is that sometimes there is a break in the continuity of writing. There were moments during Re:Vision when the gaps were apparent. I was thirsty for the script to match the perfection found in the play’s original music, choreography and vocal performances. I imagine the gaps in the play will be filled as it is further workshopped by Truthworker, since the company is as committed to its art as the most dedicated activists are to social justice.
Photo (top): (left to right) Enlil McRae and Donnay Edmund in Truthworker Theatre’s Re:Vision | A State of Emergence at Jack Theater. Credit: Tessa Stokes.