When I'm free I'll...
...get a job
...raise a family
...stop the violence and keep the peace
...develop my rap career and get off probation
...not do drugs
...never come back.
So said the five boys who performed in front of about 50 relatives, teachers, law-enforcement officers, and community members at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland last week. The show was the result of a collaboration with Maine Inside Out, a community organization dedicated to facilitating communication inside and outside of prisons — 12 two-hour workshops in which the teenage guys, sent to Long Creek for various infractions (many related to drug or alcohol abuse), got to create a play that tells their stories.
Though they dress identically — khaki pants, gray polo shirts with white mock turtlenecks underneath (each with the word "PINE" inscribed at the neck to indicate their unit), and black-and-white, Converse-ish sneakers — any observer can see that these five young men are unique. (A Long Creek employee who saw the performance last Friday remarked on how the group was an "unlikely" collection.) They run the gamut from shy to outspoken; they do not fit one mold. There is the confident beat-boxer. The elfish, quiet one. The tallest, a leader, who looks almost like an adult. The sandy-haired one who could never quite pull the smile from his face. The one with narrow, dark eyes — the main "character" in the play — a natural actor onstage and practically silent when off.
As a result of these workshops, the boys have formed something of an alliance. "We can all relate to each other," beat-boxer told the audience after the performance last week. "We all talk to each other now about stuff we normally wouldn't talk about."
Which is exactly the point.
"The social realities of violence, addiction, poverty, fear, and ignorance create formidable barriers to actual communication that could lead to acknowledgment of our common humanity," says Margot Fine, an Inside Out founder and teacher, in an e-mail. "At Maine Inside Out, we are dedicated to challenging those barriers. . . [W]e leverage the power of art to bridge some of the distance between individuals 'inside' and 'outside,' with the goal of raising awareness of our shared responsibility in the creation of a stronger community."
Or, as the quiet one told everyone after the show, in an effort to sum up its message: "There are reasons behind stuff. Sometimes life has an effect."
The performance consisted of several quasi-fictional vignettes in which the boys portrayed young people like themselves dealing with disinterested or disconnected adults, telling the story of a boy who rebels against his erratic father by partying and getting into trouble. Short, amusing skits (including one that ragged on Portland adults for stereotyping every kid from Kennedy Park as a criminal) were interspersed with poetic, poignant one-liners that made known how each of the boys recalled being free, what opportunities they'd missed, and what futures they were looking forward to. At the end, they created an alternate — potential — reality, one in which the main character graduates from college, making his now-involved father proud.