From ‘invisible’ to stars: Men of prison theater program celebrate freedom

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Jason Hawk | Oberlin News-Tribune
Former inmate Brian Butler is awarded a certificate for his work in the Oberlin Drama at Grafton program.

JASON HAWK
EDITOR

Acting gave them a kind of freedom while behind bars at Grafton Correctional Institution.

On Saturday, some of the men who found peace and brotherhood through the Oberlin Drama at Grafton gathered outside the prison’s walls to celebrate being truly free.

“In prison, you are kind of invisible. You’re sort of a ghost,” said Brian Butler during a reunion with other formerly incarcerated men at the Eric Baker Nord Performing Arts Annex at Oberlin College.

He remembered what it was like to be forgotten by society while being bars, and how taking on roles like Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” allowed him to be seen once more.

“I’m thankful to all the volunteers who came in from Oberlin, gave their time and energy for us,” he said.

The theater program was launched in 2012 by retired Oberlin College faculty member Phyllis Gorfain.

So far, 26 participants have had their freedom restored, and they have a zero percent recidivism rate.

Patrick Janson was one of the first inmates to get involved in Oberlin Drama at Grafton, acting for about nine months before release.

He said prison is full of real life drama, mental instability, and drug and alcohol abuse. “Finally, there was a group of men that had one goal — that was to trust each other, be vulnerable and have this experience through art,” he said.

Joseph Peoples was another charter member of the troupe, and said its impact transformed his life.

Taking the stage gave him something to look forward to and something to work toward, he said — and he wanted the experience to last as long as it could each time Gorfain visited.

“She was a mother, a sister, a cousin. She was everything,” Peoples said.

The theater allowed him to talk about some of the problems he was going through. “It opened me up. It opened my mind. It gave me a vision,” he said.

“You gave us a place to play and explore,” former prisoner Gene Scott told drama volunteers.

“In those moments when we were on stage, and we were giving back the energy you guys were giving us, we felt alive,” he said.

Joseph “Buck” Sharp was another charter member and played a range of roles from Othello to Mark Antony to Malcolm X. Now free, he works with at-risk youth.

Cradling his newborn daughter as he spoke, he recalled watching other men die in prison and said his fate could have been the same — at age 19, Sharp was sentenced to 18 years to life.

“You had to stay this tough shell, whether it was for the officers, the staff or the other prisoners,” he said. He didn’t feel he could cry, and tried to be tough enough that people wouldn’t steal his shoes, while bettering himself so the parole board would consider sending him home.

The men he acted alongside became brothers and the work they did was worth it, he said: “These are guys I can trust. These are people I know have my back.”

Jerome Thompson is one of the few Grafton prisoners with a life sentence who has been paroled, Gorfain said.

Theater taught him about family, and helped him mature in ways he didn’t expect, Thompson said. When he joined the program, he stopped getting in trouble because the other actors depended on him, he said.

Martin Louis, Stanley Martowitz, Christopher Fredrickson and Shaun Bernard were other former inmates Gorfain and company honored.

For her efforts to help prisoners, Gorfain received a Governor’s Award in the Arts last May. Now, after eight years, Gorfain is retiring as artistic director of Oberlin Drama at Grafton.

A new program will continue making drama productions there. Anjanette Hall, assistant professor of theater at Baldwin Wallace University, will oversee 12 students who will work with incarcerated men to write an original play based on their stories, to be performed in April.