STERLING – “There are African religions that believe you are not truly dead until you are forgotten,” a retired United Universalist minister from within the walls of the Sterling Correctional Facility told me last week.
When Corey Johnson was executed by lethal injection in January 2021, Bill Breeden promised the convicted killer and his family that he would n
ot be forgotten.
“Tonight, I feel like I’ve kept that promise,” Breeden said after witnessing the opening of “If Light Closed Its Eyes,” a groundbreaking new comedy written, developed and performed by more than 50 incarcerated residents of the prison located in 120 miles northeast of Denver.
“His name is in this play – and that means his name will live on forever.”
The goal of the creative team at the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative was to better understand the bones of the criminal justice system at this historic time. Breeden was one of more than 100 respondents for the nearly three-year project, along with victims, family members, legal officers, politicians, and other spiritual leaders.
Their words were transcribed and painstakingly modeled in what is termed a “literal documentary show” that premiered on July 20 in the most authentic setting that any live show about the prison system could ever be: deep inside of the sprawling, hooked bowels of the largest prison in the Colorado Department of Correction system.
Breeden traveled to Colorado to see the Indiana show. This is where, just five days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, Johnson became the 12th of 13 men executed in the last six months of Donald Trump’s presidency after ending a 17-year hiatus on federal executions.
Johnson was a 23-year-old drug trafficker who left seven people dead in a violent murderous spree in Richmond, Virginia. His lawyers said Johnson was mentally damaged from a physically abused childhood. That he was abandoned by his drug addict mother at the age of 13 and eventually got out of foster care. Upon his execution, witnesses in the death chamber cheered when Johnson was pronounced dead at age 52.
Not Breeden, who served as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates for 30 years. When she met Johnson just two weeks before the execution, he became the first in-person visitor Johnson had seen in his 29 years on death row.
“I spent about 30 hours with Corey, and these are the most real 30 hours I’ve ever spent with anyone,” said Breeden, who called Johnson’s ministry in his final days “probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had. in my life – and it probably also broke me more than anything I’ve ever done.
Breeden condemns Johnson’s crimes but not the man, who is only part of the difficult terrain that “If Light Closed its Eyes” tackles through words, art, live music, movement and dance for a one-of-a-kind immersive theatrical experience that has shook the hearing capacity to the core like the shaken bars of a prison cage.
“We worked to try to tell a 360-degree story that is incredibly complicated and filled with light and dark in a meaningful and innovative way,” said Ashley Hamilton, founder of the DU Prison Arts Initiative, who is also a director and one of the actors. of the game.
Another was none other than Dean Williams, executive director of the 19 prisons of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Williams is something of a full-fledged minister, zealously preaching the gospel of normalization within the state prison system as the best possible way to ensure success when inmates reintegrate into the outside world.
“We’re showing the world how different it can be,” Williams said after essentially playing himself in the story. He has been a lightning rod in the national conversation about criminal justice because he has the audacity to believe that justice and mercy can coexist in the same cell block, along with responsibility and redemption.
“Every day there are forces working against me that want to go back to the Middle Ages,” he said. “But this has to be a place where things can get better, not worse.”
Using creativity to heal
The DU Prison Arts Initiative exists to create opportunities for incarcerated people to develop healthy and meaningful artistic outlets to express themselves. It stages shows such as “Antigone” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” produces both a podcast and a prison newspaper, coordinates fine art shows, and operates the nation’s only state prison radio station. By giving prisoners a purpose, a plan, a goal and some positive reinforcement, Hamilton believes they are shifting the dialogue around the value we place on incarcerated lives.
The team behind the cast of “If Light Closed Its Eyes” received a lot of positive reinforcement from the initial audience, who were treated to an immersive experience that begins the moment they drive into a parking lot surrounded by miles of cables and gray concrete. saddens the soul.
After going through a security screening and quick orientation, they are taken deeper into the prison grounds than most people have ever seen. The performance actually begins in the “backyard”, on the long walk to Cell Block 4. And it’s a living, breathing 3D art exhibit. Sixty inmates line either side of a sidewalk now reinvented as “The Hallway of Humanity,” each dressed in an institutional gray that is in stark contrast to the colorful paintings they hold that were created by an incarcerated artist.
As you pass, men repeat poetic mantras such as “I still believe there is value in me” and “There is more to me than the decisions I have made.” Daniel Malcolm, a man with the words “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” tattooed on his face from ear to ear, tells this very vivid story: “Most of the men in prison are there because of the choices that have been presented to them. in life.” Along the way, you are encouraged to stop, watch and listen to these men in ways you may never have felt safe in another environment. And what you see are just … people.
The audience capacity of 100 correctional officers mixed the legal crowd, ex-offenders, family members of the victims and performers, police officers, adventurous theatergoers, and many of those whose interviews became the basis for the script. . And let’s talk about realism: dozens of extras help set the mood in the form of jail flies constantly buzzing over the faces of the audience.
During the ambitious evening, the audience is given a lot to think about about responsibility, regret, God, trauma, dignity, racism and the lasting harm that is done to victims and their families that can only be saved by time. , responsibility, education, forgiveness and the kind of healing that can only be achieved through honest and restorative justice. Difficult questions are asked. Yes, these men have done things they can never undo. And they should pay for their crimes. But does the time spent in prison really pay off? To everyone?
The best plays feature complex and sometimes contradictory characters, and they’re not much more than Breeden, now 70, who was raised from birth to be a Nazarene preacher in an Indiana town where no black person could be out. after sunset. “I grew up as a racist fundamentalist Christian,” said Breeden, who started preaching at age 15. “I thought I was preaching the teachings of Jesus, but most of what I was preaching was just (beep),” he said. “I was a racist, ignorant white preacher boy that he thought he knew everything and didn’t know (beep).”
His conversion came when he met a hungry black woman in the alley behind the supermarket where he worked as a teenager. It was a meeting that started him on a lifelong journey of challenging old assumptions. “I call her Jesus,” Breeden said, “because she changed my life.”
Darkness turns into light
The show itself takes place in a large cell: three horizontal floors of showers and prison cells that open to the sound of a loud clang of metal and from which the actors emerge to tell their stories.
On the upper level, there is a large blank canvas which, inspired by a Cloud Cult concert, becomes a full-fledged painting for the whole evening. A cellist provides a soundscape against a cacophony of storms, telephones and a crying baby. By the end of the show, dozens of real-life characters invited the audience to confront their own inherent prejudices and prejudices.
Hamilton’s radically empathic belief is that telling stories from behind walls changes hearts and minds. There is how things are … and there is how things could be. This is how Bill Breeden was throwing up the same supremacist bile that had been fed to him as toxic breast milk. And now there is Breeden at the other end of his life, an honored humanitarian who believes, “If there is no room in the heart of God for Corey Johnson, there is no place in the heart of God for me.”
That execution, he added, “was the worst thing I’ve ever been through.” Partly because Johnson was put to death while he was sick with COVID. But on this night 30 years later, watching this show, Breeden said, “I feel these men have given me a real gift.”
The plan was for “If Light Closed its Eyes” to run for two weekends, but yet another COVID outbreak canceled this second week, reducing their nearly three years of work to three precious public performances. But plans are in the works for a production of “Godspell” in another state prison this December.
Williams believes that “we are changing the system … one play at a time”.