Prisoners As Audience

         In 1974 I was involved in a tour of the Florida prison system with a production of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s play, perhaps the most famous example of the so-called

“Theatre of the Absurd.” Two little men who wait for a character, Godot, who never appears, and thereby call into question the very purpose, even meaning of human existence. We were duplicating the experience twenty years earlier of the Actors Workshop when they staged Godot before the inmates at San Quentin. At each of our ten performances the inmates insisted on being part of the performance, stopping the show repeatedly to talk with the actors, challenging them by asking characters to explain themselves, to tell the audience what they really meant, why they did this or that.

         Buoyed up by the experience, I applied twenty years later to the Florida Endowment for the Humanities to take an acting troupe, Theatre Strike Force, on a second prison tour. This time, after consulting with the officials of the Florida Department of Corrections, we were to stage a carefully rehearsed show with scenes on topics of interest to both the inmates and the prison staff: safe sex, authority figures, divorce, being different, celebrating diversity, the physically challenged, love, friendship, skits on the minutiae of everyday life, ways not to approach an employer, little dramas arguing both sides of an issue, sketches on personality types, political figures, caricatures of everything from greedy lawyers to over zealous cops, a monologue on rape. Normally, Theatre Strike force divided its work between scripted scenes and improvisations, but, given the challenge of working in prisons, it was decided to stick to the former for this tour. We did just this at the first performance in the fall of 1991, at Florida State Prison in Raiford where we had performed Godot years before. Everything, however, would change at the second stop the next afternoon.

         I was introducing a skit when an inmate called out, “Hey, do you do improv? You know, making it up on the spot?” He seemed so earnest, I decided to accommodate him. Yes, we did, and would he like to suggest a topic?

         “How about something about Jody?”

         “Jody?” The word was strange to me.

         He and his fellow inmates laughed at the fact that I didn’t know the word. He then explained that “Jody” is prison slang for the guy who steals your girl while you’re behind bars—a persistent worry, as you might imagine, among inmates. I would later learn that the term comes from the Second World War, referring to the civilian back home who makes advances on a soldier’s girlfriend or wife.

         I hastily picked three of my actors to play the inmate, his girlfriend, and the Jody character. Then I set the scene: the inmate, just released from prison, decides to pay a surprise visit on his girlfriend rather than calling her beforehand. When he arrives, his girlfriend is making love to Jody. As he knocks on the door, she rushes out of the bedroom.

         Since the inmates had challenged us, I decided to challenge them. “Freeze!” I said to my actors, and they dutifully froze in position, the inmate having knocked on the door, the girlfriend waiting anxiously on the other side. I crossed downstage to the audience. “Now, how do you want this skit to continue? Should she open the door? Or should she pretend no one’s home? What do you think?” The audience promptly fell into a lively debate. We took a voice vote: the girlfriend should open the door. Hiding her nervousness, she threw her arms about the former boyfriend, glad to see him, expressing surprise he didn’t call, all the while casting nervous glances to the back room where Jody stirred from bed and went to the door, listening, looking a bit scared. The audience howled with laughter, along with a spate of commentary from the philosophical to the obscene.

         The inmate character then noticed a sweater on the back of the chair, too small to be his. Another “Freeze” from me, and the obvious question to the audience. “It’s Jody’s sweater. Does she lie about it? Or tell him the truth?” An even more heated debate from the audience followed; the consensus was that she tell him she had bought it for a “friend.” I called out “Unfreeze” and the actors resumed. Having decided to challenge the boyfriend, Jody came out of the bedroom.

         There came another “Freeze!” But this time it was an inmate who stopped the action. He had taken over my role! “Does she try to say the guy’s her brother? Or does she tell the truth?” After a long debate, the truth won out.

         The actors then played a very funny trio: each man protesting he loved her best, she flattered to have so much attention, the men then demanding that she chose between them, at length bonding in their shock that she could be such a two-timer. Another “Freeze” from a new audience MC. I joined him in posing questions to the audience. “How do you want this to end? Does she stick with her boyfriend? Or does she go with Jody?” Other alternatives were proposed, again ranging from the reasonable to the unmentionable. With an “Unfreeze” now coming on my cue from the entire audience, even from the guards who normally stood in silence at the back, the plot resolved according to the inmates’ scenario: the men kicked the girl out of the apartment, had a few beers together, and became buddies, vowing to be careful of women in the future.

         Now deluged with topics, we abandoned the prepared material, and did improvs for the remainder of the show—and the rest of the tour as well. As we were leaving, the inmate who had initially challenged me came up and said, “You know. We’ve got no power here. They tell us what to do. When to eat. Boss us around. But I really enjoyed those improvs, especially when you called out “Freeze” so we could decide what would happen next. It gave me . . . what’s the word . . . power, yeah, a feeling of power . . . like I could control something, even if it’s just a play.”

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