Last night, I went to Sing Sing prison to see a performance of "West Side Story." This is the third play I have seen behind the huge stone walls of the prison. A volunteer program, called Rehabilitation Through the Arts, has brought theater to this maximum security facility, with the idea that skills like learning to work together as a team and improving communication skills can be truly rehabilitative.
I've written about this program several times in the New York Times, so if you're interested, please read more. Usually, the troupe performs for fellow inmates for three nights, and the fourth night people from the "outside" - usually prison volunteers, clergy and sometimes media - can attend. Security takes forever, with hand stamps, x-ray machines, body searches, and the confiscation of pretty much everything but your driver's license. All this after your name has been cleared by New York State weeks before.
Last night's performance was the first musical the program has ever attempted. It was given as a tribute to the former superintendent of Sing Sing, Brian Fisher, who is now the Commissioner of New York State Corrections. It was Mr. Fisher who first allowed the program inside the prison.
So maybe the dancing wasn't up to Jerome Robbin's standards and perhaps Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics might have winced as a few inmates missed their high notes. A handful of volunteers - including my wonderful friend Linda - played the women's roles. The rest of the cast, along with most of the production crew, were inmates.
The show was great. Naturally, the fight scenes were extremely believable. But the most poignant scenes came from the softer moments. There was one in which three very large men came on stage and sang, "There's a Place For Us." When they starting singing the lyrics, "peace and quiet and open air wait for us, somewhere..." I almost started crying. Riff had dreadlocks, Bernardo had just the right combination of menace and vulnerability and the inmate who played Officer Krupke played him as a fool to great laughs.
One of the most moving moments of Sing Sing theater is the end of the show. The inmates are clearly basking in the applause. They are not allowed to leave the stage, but audience members may go up and greet them. Eventually, the audience lines up, to get in the small caged buses that will take them to the prison exit. (You don't just walk out either -there's security in place for leaving, as you can imagine.) The inmates start to come down from the excitement of the evening as they watch the visitors stream out.
And when you walk out into the spring night air, the freedom really is palpable.