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'The Castle': Redemption on Riverside Drive

February 20, 2009

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his previous post, he offered some strategies for nonprofits that are downsizing.)

In my A to Z Survival Guide for Uncertain Times, I noted how important it is in these recessionary times for nonprofits to collect and tell the stories of the constituents they serve.

Last Saturday, I witnessed a particularly powerful example of this practice in action. The Fortune Society, one of New York City's most important criminal justice organizations, presented (in association with Eric Krebs and Chase Mishkin) the play The Castle, which is based on the life stories of four ex-convicts who actually perform their own stories.

Even before the play began, I quickly realized from browsing the playbill that this was not going to be a routine theatrical outing. Among other things, I learned that:

  • Close to 1.6 million Americans are in prison (not including the more than 700,000 in local jails) -- that's 750 out of every 100,000 citizens.
  • One in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars.

Castle_cast Telling and acting their own stories, Vilma Ortiz Donavan, Kenneth Harrigan, Angel Ramos, and Casimiro Torres shared the downs and occasional ups of their lives -- childhoods of absent and, in some instances, abusive parents; drug-infested neighborhoods; limited or nonexistent sources of love and support -- along with tales of dehumanizing youth detention facilities, homeless shelters, and prisons. The common thread running through the actors' stories was how each of them succeeded in turning around their lives and was now contributing in a positive way to the lives of others. And the intent of the evening was simple -- to convey the message that ex-offenders, with a little help from their friends, can change their lives.

The Fortune Society is no stranger to theater. David Rothenberg, its founder and first executive director, created the organization in his previous life as a theatrical publicist in 1967 when he was involved in the production of a similar play, Fortune in Men's Eyes. So it wasn't a stretch for Rothenberg to return to the dramatic form some four decades later when he conceived of and directed The Castle.

I found myself riveted as the four people on stage related their experiences of living on the streets, selling drugs, life in prison, and, finally, finding redemption through the efforts and support of Fortune Society staff at the organization's transitional residence in Upper Manhattan fondly known as "the Castle."

In the "talk back" segment with the cast after the performance, a few theater-goers were stunned to learn that the actors were relating their own life stories. Another noted how he was struck by the performers' eloquence, self-awareness, and wisdom. The sentiments expressed were unlike any I have heard after a theatrical performance. Audience members spoke up with helpful suggestions and offers of assistance: Are you producing a film of the production? How can I arrange a performance in my community? Others were eager to make a charitable contribution so that at–risk youth could attend a future performance.

Castle_photo After the discussion, the hundred or so people in the audience walked out into the crisp evening air a bit wiser. We had been privileged to experience, if only for an hour or two, the struggles of four remarkable individuals. As for myself, their stories will never leave me and I hope I'll be able to communicate to others my deepened understanding of the lot of the least fortunate in our midst.

Most importantly, since the play first opened eleven months ago it has helped to build public support for a new wave of "second chance" legislation designed to assist ex-offenders as they re-enter their communities. Last year, the play was performed in Albany for state legislators. Other venues have included maximum-security prisons, community colleges, and churches. Peggy McGarry, who served as the director of criminal justice programs at the JEHT Foundation, one of the largest private criminal justice funders in the country until it suffered significant losses in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme and announced that it was closing, notes that "It is critically important to build greater public understanding of the challenges facing ex-offenders now that both the federal government and a number of states are enacting legislation in support of programs, such as those conducted by the Fortune Society."

Fortunately, even after the play ends its run, the real "Castle" on Riverside Drive in Harlem will continue to provide ex-offenders with a new lease on life.

-- Michael Seltzer

(For those living in or visiting New York City, The Castle is performed every Saturday at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street in the theater district. Tickets are $45 and $30, and can be purchased through Telecharge, 212-239-6200. The producers and performers are also willing to bring the production to interested audiences, whereever they may be. For more information, contact Eric Krebs at 212-967-7079.)

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Posted by Mary Ann Newman  |   February 28, 2009 at 08:40 PM

For many years our governments, local, state, and federal have been taking a hard line toward criminal offenders, creating uniform sentences, such as the "three strikes" laws, tying judge's hands when meting out justice. Perhaps in response, the mainstream media tend to demonize and dehumanize people who are in prison or have been in prison, both sensationalizing and trivializing their situation. It is gratifying to see that this is being addressed in real life at The Castle and in the arts through "The Castle." Let's hope it is a harbinger of a new philosophy toward criminal justice in the U.S.

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