Singing (and Acting) at Sing Sing

Twice a year at Sing Sing Correctional Institute in New York State, inmates perform a play. This week, an original musical, Breakin' the Mummy's Code, played to a packed house. Actors talk about what they get from the experience.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

Unidentified Woman: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight. One...

SCOTT SIMON, host:

A new play opened in New York this week. "Breakin' the Mummy's Code" is a kind of historical musical revue, written and directed by Brent Buell(ph), with lights, costumes, songs and action. The show runs for only four performances, but don't call Ticketmaster; it's already sold out. The audiences are held captive. "Breakin' the Mummy's Code" is the latest play put on by prisoners at the Sing Sing maximum security prison in Ossining, New York. Talk about off-Broadway.

(Soundbite of "Breakin' the Mummy's Code")

Mr. CLARENCE MACKLIN (Sing Sing Prisoner): (As unidentified character) Love, peace and revolution, bro. My friend is your friend.

SIMON: That's Clarence Macklin, who also calls himself `Divine.' He's a large, round-shouldered man with dreadlocks who plays several roles in "Breakin' the Mummy's Code," including Robin Hood, Hamlet, a playwright and a Roman citizen.

Mr. MACKLIN: Well, this is actually my first comedy, and I never realized comedy was so hard. Now I see that timing plays a crucial role in comedy. And if one person throws the timing off, the joke can't be funny.

(Soundbite of "Breakin' the Mummy's Code")

Unidentified Prisoner #1: (As Friar Tuck) I'm Friar Tuck, specialist in fast food and generally boiling in oil, and these here are--hit it, boys!

Unidentified Prisoners: (As the Merry Men, singing in unison) Ohhh, we are the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, singing the words of our favorite chorus.

SIMON: Prison is hard time, but comedy is really hard. This is the 14th play put on by prisoners at Sing Sing through a program called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. They try to put on two plays each year. Each production includes a few professionals from New York's theater community, including the writer and director, Brent Buell.

Mr. BRENT BUELL (Writer and Director, "Breakin' the Mummy's Code"): I think one of the things people would be most amazed at is how undifferent--how much the same life inside--theater inside is like theater outside.

SIMON: The plays have produced here for inmates since 1966, but when Brian Fischer became the superintendent of Sing Sing five years ago, he added an innovation. On the fourth and final night of a production, people from the Ossining community are allowed to attend.

Mr. BRIAN FISCHER (Superintendent, Sing Sing): People come in and they're astonished by how big the place is, the level of security they go through in terms of getting it. We take pictures, we've stamped hands, we take cell phones away. So very initial response is, `This is a tough place.' And they go up the hill and they sit in a large auditorium, and suddenly they're in amongst maybe 50, 60, 70 inmates. And once the play starts, they start looking at the inmates not as inmates, but as actors.

SIMON: What are some of the special ways in which you've had to--not sure make allowances is what I mean--but, well,putting a theatrical production on in prison?

Mr. FISCHER: Well, for one, we have to go over the script. We're very serious and very sensitive about what's in the script. When you have 300 inmates inside an auditorium, you have to be careful that some topics might be inappropriate.

SIMON: You don't want a prison break.

Mr. FISCHER: Don't want a prison break...

SIMON: Prison break, yeah.

Mr. BUELL: ...riot. We don't want inappropriate behavior. We don't want to incite people, and they're not here because they're choirboys.

SIMON: Props and costumes pose problems. Scripts are revised to remove even fake weapons because rubber guns, knives or swords could be used to threaten prison guards. Items like baseball bats or saws are edited out of plays because they could be used as actual weapons. Gray and blue costumes are not allowed because Sing Sing's officers wear gray and blue. The prisoners' production of "12 Angry Men," a famous Reginald Rose play about 12 male jurors struggling to reach a verdict, was especially vexing because the jurors wear regular shirts and ties--a wonderful outfit for a prison break. So each article of clothing had to be turned in and accounted for down to a character's socks.

(Soundbite of "Breakin' the Mummy's Code)

Unidentified Prisoner #1: (As unidentified character) I've thought of this throughout my long journey, and I have decided that my name shall henceforth be M-N-M.

Unidentified Prisoner #2: (As unidentified character) M-N-M(ph)? What kind of name is that?

SIMON: The inmates rehearse at least twice a week for the three months leading up to a play. Clarence Macklin, who's in the 10th year of a 20-year sentence for armed robbery and says, `I know you've heard this before, but I'm innocent,' says he enjoys rehearsals.

Mr. MACKLIN: What we don't get to do, under normal circumstances in this environment, you know?

SIMON: Yeah. Like what?

Mr. MACKLIN: We get a chance to express different emotions that would normally be suppressed in an environment like this. We get to express love, or we may get to express pain from a loss. It's only a character that we're playing, but over the course of our lives we have felt these emotions before.

SIMON: Well, I mean, you know, maybe people need to hear this. It's hard to express as basic and as noble an emotion like love in prison, isn't it?

Mr. MACKLIN: Yeah. It's very hard, you know, because there's still a prison code. This is still a maximum ...(unintelligible) facility, you know, and certain things get looked upon as weaknesses.

(Soundbite of "Breakin' the Mummy's Code)

Mr. KELLY WATTS(ph) (Sing Sing Prisoner): (As the stage manager) Sorry, ladies and gentlemen. Those weren't the actors. They were our stage crew. We have more hams back there than Easter Sunday in Dublin. Now here come the Merry Men in green now.

Unidentified Prisoners: (As the Merry Men, singing in unison): Ohhh...

SIMON: Kelly Watts plays the stage manager in "Breakin' the Mummy's Code." He's appeared in many productions, and says acting is like...

Mr. WATTS: Putting on another suit. I get the opportunity to vicariously live out somebody else's life, somebody else's story. That's really powerful.

SIMON: Mr. Watts will turn 40 in December, and has been in Sing Sing for 17 years. He's a fit man with a kind of jazzman's goatee and a powerful voice. In prison, he's earned a master's degree from The New York Theological Seminary.

SIMON: You've been in prison almost half your life.

Mr. WATTS: Correct.

SIMON: What got you in here?

Mr. WATTS: Homicide. I made a very, very stupid decision, when I was young, to get into a fight with a friend of mine, and as a result of the injuries that I inflicted upon him in the fight he died.

SIMON: May I ask was this a beating or...

Mr. WATTS: Correct. It was a fistfight. I just--I lost it, bottom line. And it hurts because it was someone that I knew, someone that I cared about, and I knew his family.

SIMON: Kelly Watts was convicted of second-degree murder. The court records in his case describe an attack, not a fight, in which Mr. Watts repeatedly slammed his victim's head against the concrete after he was unconscious, kicked him in the face, and declared, `I hope he dies.' Kelly Watts had already served three months in prison for a previous assault. During our interview, he seemed notably gracious and well-spoken.

I'm sure there are people who will hear our conversation and say, `My God, what an impressive man, and I'm happy he's got this program and other programs that he's been through, and he's gained in education, but it's more than the guy he killed got.'

Mr. WATTS: Oh, it's a lot more.

SIMON: And...

Mr. WATTS: Yes.

SIMON: ...everything you achieve they take as another reason to resent you.

Mr. WATTS: The only thing I could say is that they have a right to resent me because what I did was repulsive. But don't destroy two lives. One was already destroyed. If my life is going to make any difference with the intentions that I have, let it make that difference.

(Soundbite of "Breakin' the Mummy's Code")

Mr. WATTS: (As the stage manager) Hey, did you ever see anything so clever? Friar Tuck was a monk, but we have transposed him into a fry chef. Did you get it? `Fryer' Tuck.

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

SIMON: Sing Sing Superintendent Brian Fischer and his wife are theater-goers on Broadway, as well as in their own prison, and he says he's always impressed by the quality of the prisoners' performances.

Mr. FISCHER: The majority of the inmates, they have some innate skills, and I tease them sometimes that most of our inmates, regardless of their crime, are a little bit of a con artist. And being inside of a prison you're a bit of a con artist. Everybody's got an angle. So some of their ability to be a con artist comes through as they're acting. For our purposes, we're going to take those basic skills and motivate them and move them in a more positive direction.

SIMON: Inmates have to apply to be accepted in the Rehabilitation Through the Arts drama program and may be more motivated than many other prisoners, but Superintendent Fischer believes the success of the program can be seen in statistics.

Mr. FISCHER: The average for non-participants is expected that anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of the people who leave prison come back. We're talking about something probably less than 10 percent. But there's the old argument that many people believe, that we should simply lock somebody up, give them the old story--bread and water and a Bible and forget about them. It doesn't work; 99.9 percent of the inmates will return to the community. So the question now becomes do you want them to return after doing five, six years of pushing brooms and not growing up, or do you want them to return with some skills and some socialization and some growth and some maturity? We want to make a change.

SIMON: The inmates talk about the satisfaction and thrill of putting on another life for a few hours. It allows them to feel free, if only briefly. It allows them to glimpse other possibilities in themselves. And maybe for the first time it even forces them to identify with the feelings of another human being. Kelly Watts once had to play an especially repellent character.

You played a homicidal maniac.

Mr. WATTS: Yes.

SIMON: What was that like?

Mr. WATTS: Very, very bizarre. That's probably the best word. But it did allow me to touch into that side of me that brought that rage out to actually take another life. Got to tap into that side because I have to make sure I've pushed that down so much that it never surfaces again. Can't afford that.

SIMON: The final performance of "Breakin' the Mummy's Code," with community members in the audience, was last night. Clarence Macklin says it's hard to go back to your cell and hear it clang shut when the applause hasn't stopped ringing in your ears.

Mr. MACKLIN: I got to tell you man, it's depressing. But we do have consolations. We do have the knowledge of knowing that, see, every play we put on here we try to have morals and principles and messages that spread to the population. And the consolation is that maybe we have touched somebody here. Maybe somebody in the audience said, `I got it!'

SIMON: "Breakin' the Mummy's Code" by Brent Buell, and performed by inmates at the Sing Sing correctional institution this week.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite from "Breakin' the Mummy's Code")

Mr. WATTS: (As the stage manager) And now for your religious and gastronomic enlightenment, here is the man you have been waiting for. May I introduce to you the awesome father of Sherwood Forest, the monk with the most, the man who feeds our souls, our spiritual leader, Friar Tuck!!!

(Soundbite of applause)

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.