Corrections and Re-Entry Programs by Kate Luhr

I was a volunteer mentor for the duration of a 20-week program in a juvenile detention center. The kids wrote, produced and performed a play in a program designed by The Unusual Suspects.

Yesterday, I saw a group of kids put on a play. Theatre is a silly thing, a trifle, inaccessible, pretentious. Theatre nerds are always playing weird games and pretending that they’re serious. When it’s time for budget cuts, theatre is totally expendable.

But yesterday, I saw a group of kids put on a play.

I’d wager maybe one of them had ever actually seen a play on the outside. But for 10 weeks, the girls in the program wrote the play, and for the next 10 weeks, the boys in the program joined them to rehearse and finally perform it. Yesterday, before the play, one of the young men in the program was asked to speak about something unexpected that had happened earlier in the week. He’d gone to court, and he’d told the judge how much this program was helping him learn to get along with people and to cope with his emotions.

The judge told him she was finally impressed with him. She set him a release date.

Yesterday, during the play, the kids remembered all their lines and their scene changes. They got to wear fun costumes, including fancy suits and party dresses. To cover one of the longer costume changes, two of the young men in the program performed a song/freestyle rap they’d written about their lives. It wasn’t full of false bravado, or bling, or bitches. It was a confessional, filled with regret. The cheers and applause afterward lasted a minute.

There was a young woman in the program who had to fight with herself every week to stay in the group, or even to stay in the room. She spent a lot of time sitting by herself. Yesterday, after the play, she talked openly about how much of a struggle it had been for her to participate, but said that now that they’d performed the play, she was really glad she’d done it. Her parole officer stood up and told her she was proud of her. Then her sister stood up and, through tears, said the same. Then another young woman’s aunt stood up and said the same. Then another young woman’s father. 

There was a lot of crying.

Yesterday, I say a group of kids put on a play.

A group of kids who, for most of the hours of their lives, are seen through a very narrow lens. But yesterday, for a couple of hours, they got to be seen as something different. They got to experience the pride of accomplishing something they’d worked hard at, the addictive thrill of a standing ovation, the perhaps unfamiliar feeling of a group of people telling them how great they were. Yesterday, for a couple of hours, they got to see themselves as something different. And maybe that lasts a couple of hours, or maybe a little longer, who can say? All I know is that I have seen hundreds of professional theatre productions in my life and I have never experienced anything quite like I did yesterday, when I saw a group of kids put on a play.

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Whitney Kear