By Talia Dennis
Flaws in the criminal justice system, life in incarceration and sexual assault with regards to racial minorities were the focus of a Truthworker Theatre Company performance in Hoff Theater April 7.
The production began and ended with a moment of silence for 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III, an African-American student who was killed on this campus nearly one year ago. The director and founder of Truthworker Theatre Company Samara Gaev dedicated the show in his honor.
Outside of the theater was a place for audience members to write prayers or affirmations to Collins on sticky notes and post it on the wall.
The Brooklyn, New York, based group performed scenes from their trilogy of social-justice productions through hip-hop. “BAR CODE: A Performative Analysis of the School to Prison Pipeline” was hosted by the Prison Resistance Project. One audience member described the show as “heavy” during the Q&A period because of the content and reality depicted on stage.
However, the portion of the performance that resonated most with audience members was about solitary confinement.
“I already knew about solitary confinement, but what was interesting to me was seeing those statistics on the screen and actually having to internalize that and then think not only about those numbers, but also the people behind those numbers,” said Tamier Barrett, a sophomore criminology and psychology major. “And what I really started thinking about most was how they’re mentally affected by this and kind of having to put myself in that space.”
Solitary confinement sentences can range from days to decades and require inmates to spend 22 to 24 hours a day alone.
Sophomore family science major Payton Lambert said she thought solitary confinement was a form of short-term punishment.
“I didn’t know it could be for like 40 years,” she said.
Members of the group, who are high school and college-aged, have personal connections to the system and are “directly impacted by mass incarceration,” according to the program.
In a later scene, the performers drew on the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager killed in Florida by George Zimmerman in 2012, as an allegory for rape. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Martin was not sexually assaulted, but “he lost his innocence” like black women who have been raped since the time of slavery, said the performers.
“I am Trayvon Martin, but in a different way,” said one of the female performers. “I have hips, long hair, breasts and I bet you’re wondering in which way I would possibly relate. At any moment, I can walk down the street and have my innocence taken away from me again.”
The movement following his controversial death criticized Zimmerman’s racial profiling. The neighborhood watchman observed Martin’s hooded sweatshirt and pursued him, despite the advice of police.
“From the surface, we have nothing in common but going deeper into our situations we’re the same,” said two female performers together.
The overall production revealed several flaws within the criminal justice system, beginning with systemic racism.
A speech given by Willie Lynch in 1712 about controlling slaves was presented at the performance.
“I assure you that distrust is stronger than trust and envy stronger than adulation, respect or admiration,” he said.
Rebecca Oliver, Donnay Edmund and Desi Ramos performed a response to the speech, drawing reflection on the issues today.
“Centuries ago, your theory of breaking our souls still works today,” Oliver said, with Edmund and Ramos joining her to emphasize some of the words. “I mean your plan to pit a beautiful race such as mine against one another was genius. In fact, your systematic oppression still limits my people’s self-worth and you were right.”
The scene also used examples of comments regarding the shade of skin tone — with some insisting lighter hues mean the person is “mixed with something besides black.”
However, Oliver, Edmund and Ramos said all black should be considered beautiful, regardless of the shade.
Another scene directly targeted the criminal justice system, by pointing out it was not made to protect minorities and it’s even worse for males.
Statistics about incarceration were displayed on the screen.
“Despite no statistical differences in rates of offending, the poor & people of color are over-represented in these statistics at every phase of the criminal justice system,” read the last slide.
Other slides read “Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than whites,” meaning these students would be more likely to be “pushed out of school for the same behavior,” and “68 percent of all males in state and federal prison do not have a high school diploma.”
At the end of their performance, the company received a standing ovation and several praises from audience members during the Q&A portion.
When asked about how to fix the system, Alixa Garcia, the company’s technical director, said, “There are tangible successes that we have seen in the face of criminal justice.”
“Change is slow,” Garcia said. “We might not see it in our lifetime, we probably won’t see many of the things that we wish to see, but they are happening and they’ve been happening and there are things we are seeing because those that came before us have rooted for our survival and have put their life for our survival.”
But she added that people cannot sit back and think someone else will do the work or it’s someone else’s problem.
“We are in urgent times and we need to act urgently,” she said.
Featured Photo Credit: Members of the Truthworker Theatre Company perform at the Hoff Theater. (Talia Dennis/ Bloc Reporter)
Talia Dennis is a sophomore journalism major and history major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.