Hope, boots, and sardines: Larry White's vision of prison theater

Editor's note: Larry White is the founder of AFSC's Hope Lives for Lifers project, which helps people incarcerated navigate long prison sentences. The project is based on White's survivor's manual of the same name, which he began working on while serving 32 years in prison. 

Currently, Hope Lives for Lifers is being piloted at New York's Eastern Correctional Facility. Participants meet for weekly group sessions on adjusting to the challenges of prison life and mapping out long-term goals related to spiritual growth, personal relationships, and educational and professional development—achievements that can also help them prepare for parole hearings.

Recently, Larry received the 2017 Antonio Gramsci award from the International Prison Theater Association, headquartered in Italy and affiliated with UNESCO’s International Theater Institute. It is a lifetime achievement award acknowledging the role of theater as one of the strategies he and his colleagues are using to disseminate Hope Lives for Lifers to individuals serving life sentences throughout the prison system.  

This article was commissioned by the Italian journal “Teatri Delle Diversita” and will appear in their 2018 winter issue.

In 1982 Abdur Rahman met Larry White in the Greenhaven Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York. They both spent decades behind bars, but even though they were eventually transferred to different prisons, Rahman still remembers the impact that Larry White had on his life and the life of other individuals with life sentences. According to Rahman, White is “an individual who has inspired hope in the breasts of many lost men.”

The method White used to bring hope to men facing long sentences was education. He started prison reading groups based on the principles espoused by Paolo Freire in his book, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." The reading groups began advocating for basic human rights behind bars, and White invited legislators and clergy into the prisons to support their cause. At the core of White’s message to his fellow prisoners was to take charge of their own sentences and map out a long-term plan for themselves that would enable them to leave prison in better physical and mental shape than they were when they came in.

When White was granted parole after 32 years behind bars, he did not forget the men he left behind. He wrote a prison survival manual called "Hope Lives for Lifers" and enlisted the support of the American Friends Service Committee’s Healing Justice program in an effort to have the manual distributed to all individuals who were beginning sentences of 15 years or more. Eventually White persuaded New York state’s Commissioner of Corrections to allow him to conduct a pilot program based on the manual in a maximum security prison. Under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee White and a team of scholars and prison experts created a curriculum that put the ideas of his manual into action. One ofthe central pedagogical techniques in the curriculum was theater.

For White theater as a means of instilling hope in prison is “crucially important.” He explains why: “Hope Lives for Lifers is a compilation of different approaches, including drama. Drama is of such importance that it can stand alone. Drama has a specific purpose for prisoners. It allows them to play out their feelings and views. A lot of times a person in prison never gets a chance to talk to anybody about how he really feels. He never gets a chance to really lay it out there, lay it out in a way that it comes from inside him.”

White continues, “Theater enables people. It empowers them. When you meet a person who is an actor, you are not meeting an ordinary person. You’re meeting someone who can transform themselves into anything they want to be. Things are so crowded in the prison system. You lose your autonomy. You can’t do this and you can’t do that. It feels like you can’t do anything. And people begin to believe that, because the atmosphere inside is like that. But theater opens doors for people.”

One of the doors that that White believes theater can open involves understanding the difference between intentional action and instinctive action. He notes that people outside prison are used to responding instinctively, especially when they are challenged or disrespected. They react with aggression in a way that helps them survive on the street, but the same aggressive reactions will result in serious penalties if directed against corrections officers that challenge them in a prison setting. The penalties might increase the length of their sentences and could lead to their being beaten, so it is in their interest in prison to learn how to restrain their instinctive reactions and respond intentionally in a way that leads to beneficial results that will reduce the time they spend in jail and the chances of suffering serious injury.

White believes that theater can play a significant role in shifting from instinctive to intentional behavior. Intentional actions require a kind of public performance in which you play the role of the deferential prisoner that the correctional officers want to see. That performance requires a script that can be played out in one’s mind before a problematic encounter, so that when the difficult moment arrives the individual can control the urge to respond with instinctive emotion, and instead perform a script of intentional actions designed to avoid trouble.

Larry White, founder of AFSC's Hope Lives for Lifers project. Photo: AFSC/New  York

In an upstate New York penitentiary White encouraged a group of inmates to act out the difference between intentional and instinctive actions through improvisations in which they took turns playing the roles of inmates and correctional officers. The participants enacted past encounters with correctional officers where instinctive reactions had gotten them into trouble, and then replayed the scenes with a different set of intentional actions that resolved the conflicts without verbal or physical violence. Participants observing the scene commented on the difference between the two sets of reactions and sometimes took over one of the roles to demonstrate an intentional action that they imagined might be more successful than the ones being played out in the scene.

The similarity between these kinds of exercises and the forum theater strategies designed by Agosto Boal is not coincidental. Larry White’s prison survival manual was deeply influenced by his reading of Paolo Freire’s "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," the same book that inspired Agosto Boal to write "The Theater of the Oppressed." The excerpts from Freire’s book that White chose to distribute in the prison reading groups he organized included quotes about “education as the practice of freedom—as opposed to education as the practice of domination.” The thoughtful use of intentional actions to avoid conflict enabled individuals to improve their chances for parole instead of increased punishment that instinctive reactions might cause.

But the repression of instinctive actions has its consequences, and White believes that theater can play a different kind of role in expressing the frustrations that result from restraining one’s instincts. He explains by using the analogy of a boot on his neck:

“I used to tell people that the guards had their foot on my neck. People would tell me to stop saying that, that the guards didn’t really have their foot on my neck. But when I say there’s a foot on my neck, that’s how it feels to me. That’s the impact. That’s the vision that comes to mind when they’re doing things to me. That’s what I’m going through. Their feet are on my neck. That’s what I want to be communicated to the outside world. I want that dramatized, so that people can see that I’m living in prison with a foot on my neck.”

“Drama gives people a release,” explains White. It gives them a way to express all those things that they can’t express in any other way. It plays a helpful role not only for the prisoners, but for the administration too. It gives the prisoners a non-violent way to express their frustrations. It’s like a mirror that allows both sides to see themselves like they’ve never seen themselves before.”

White believes drama can function as a release for a prisoner who endures the psychological pressure of a boot on his neck. “If a guard comes at me and makes me feel like shit in front of other people, I have to put up with that, because I am advocating for myself. I don’t wat to have anything that’s stopping me from going home, so I put up with it. I say, ‘yes, sir’ and go back to my cell. People say, ‘oh he taking that really good,’ but, man, deep down insider there is something happening in there and it really hurts. There are thoughts inside that can come out on the stage, and he can express it without getting beaten and stuff so it’s important. The real deal is what he puts on the stage. When you look up at that boot you don’t just see the individual that’s wearing it, you see all the elements of society that have their boot on your neck throughout history from the Nazis to the Ku Klux Klan. All the weight of that history is behind that boot on your neck.”

White recalls watching the men in his program re-enacting their encounters with correction officers, and believes he could see past traumas flash through their minds as they prepared to perform. “What I remember,” said White, “is that I could see it forming in their minds, but it had not come out yet. It made me conscious that drama can give them a way to act it out. You know, they get told, ‘shut up and go to your cell,’ and then we tell them to forget about it. But they can’t forget about it. It’s an experience. It happened. It’s all inside. It’s a hurt, a feeling of being disrespected that’s in here. (points to his heart). You just can’t carry it around, but you can resolve it by acting it out so people understand how it feels. Inside there is something happening and it really hurts. There are thoughts inside me and those things can come out on the stage.”

Another theater technique employed in Larry’s program is asking the prisoners to imagine and write out a dialogue between themselves and their past selves. Several of the men in Larry’s pilot program used the exercise to consider the ways in which their thinking had evolved since their sentencing hearings. In performing a dialogue with his past self, one of the participants realized how intolerant he had been of the testimony given by the mother of the man he had killed, and said, “I was George Zimmerman.” Everyone in the room was shocked to hear a young Afro- American man compare himself to someone whose name had become synonymous with racist violence against blacks. In a highly publicized case in 2012, Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed young black man, Treyvon Martin, and was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. The participant in White’s program explained that he had refused to accept anything the white woman said at his hearing simply because of her race, and in retrospect, as he reenacted his dismissive reaction to her testimony, he realized that he had been as blindly intolerant as Zimmerman. The insight confirmed White’s contention that theater was a mirror. In this case a theatrical re-enactment enabled the participant to see himself as he had never seen himself before. The George Zimmerman realization was an extreme example of the way in which role playing can result in heightened empathy.

Planning for AFSC's Hope Lives for Lifers project. Photo: AFSC/New York

Participants in the role-playing exercises associated with “Hope Lives for Lifers” were able to see themselves as others saw them, and gained a new appreciation for points of view they had never considered before. There was even some empathy for correction officers expressed by one of the participants who played that role in a scene about cell searches. White spoke about the importance of seeing a situation from the perspective of people whose lives you impact: “I remember I was sticking up stores and didn’t realize the impact it was having on other people. Then it dawned on me that when I take money out of there, the guy’s insurance goes up, and then when the price of insurance goes up, the prices of the items go up, and when the prices of items go up, people have a hard time affording food. People have to know that. If I didn’t know that I would have gone around sticking up until it was brought to my attention because that was not my intention, all of that. When you take that money it goes all the down to these people who shop at those grocery stores, and you just cost them money and put problems on them. These are the things we want theater to bring to people. We want them to see that. We want them to be aware.”

White is happy that his program has already begun to heighten empathy among the participants, but he hopes for more extensive uses of theater to raise the general public’s awareness of what goes on in prison. For instance, he believes that theater can help create empathy for individuals who experience the torture of solitary confinement. He described his own time in solitary confinement like this: “They put me in a tank, a three-man tank, so it was three cells, but they put you in isolation. That’s a single cell. You don’t have anybody to talk to. They open up those windows and you get cold in there. They bring a mattress to you six o’clock at night and some matches but otherwise there isn’t anything there but you, the toilet and the sink; and what is written on the walls. You begin to lose track of time. There is nothing to distinguish between the days. You think something may have happened yesterday or last week, but there isn’t anybody to verify. Then you say, ‘I am going to bug out because I don’t even know if that really happened or not.’ That is what happens in there when you are in isolation. You reach that point: ‘I can’t verify, even to myself, if a thing really happened. I am not sure.’ You get scared to death. ‘I gotta get out of here, man. I’m losing it. The sureness of life, the assurances, they depend on other people. You isolate someone from other people and a terrible thing happens to that person. That is one of the things you need to express in theater, so that people understand what goes on. The public needs to know what happens in solitary confinement. When you isolate someone from other people, a terrible thing happens to that person.”

“I have a saying, that after an extended period of time, punishment, and all the pains that come with it, for the person who must survive under punishment, is no longer punishment. It becomes something else. And so does that person. In other words, he gets accustomed to the punishment, and then it’s no longer punishment anymore. You accept it. It beats you down. And you change.”

“Punishment changes you. So now you like the punishment. You say, ‘I can deal with the punishment. I look forward to that punishment.’ That person isn’t the same person anymore. That is what needs to be put on the stage so that people can understand how punishment changes you.” Even though he was isolated from human contact, White’s experience in solitary confinement heightened his sense of empathy. He spent much of his time reading the stories that the previous inhabitants of his cell had written on the bare walls. The stories etched images in his mind, like miniature plays.

Poisoned food. Starvation. Open windows on freezing cold nights. “All that kind of stuff. All the stuff a man goes through in solitary. How he misses his family. You read it because there isn’t anything else to read. It stays in your mind and you start thinking about that guy, saying, ‘oh, man, I feel sorry for that dude. I got it bad, but what he said right there is really horrible.”

Sometimes what White witnessed in solitary was worse than what he read on the walls. Although he was in a cell by himself, he would stick a tiny piece of mirror outside the bars to catch a glimpse of another human face. He recounts how one night he saw a man try to kill himself: “He was in bad shape. He climbed up the bars, unscrewed the light bulb and stuck his finger in the socket. Baby, man, that electricity knocked him up against the wall. Knocked him out man. Could have killed him. I mean what was going on in his mind. He was in bad shape. Stick his finger into that? No, man! Then you begin to see what other people feel and then you begin to understand that suffering isn’t just something that happens. You get to a point where you’re like, ‘oh I can put up with this suffering, but I can see that he can’t.’ You feel for him. He won’t last long. White’s experience in solitary led him to believe that the ultimate theatrical symbol of empathy is an empty sardine can. He describes a scene he would like to see in a play about prison in which a sardine can is at the heart of the action: “I was in a three-man tank. And the relationships in prison, they’re deep. We feel each other. So I get a package, and it’s a can of sardines. Little sardine can. And I take that sardine can and I pass it down. He take one down and he pass it down. That was us, eating out of the same sardine can. Eating the same bread. Sharing the same suffering. I know he’s suffering. I know that guy and I feel for him.”

White would like to see that sardine scenario enacted on the stage to create empathy for the kind of things that happen in prison that are never portrayed in the movies. In White’s vision of theater, empathy for the suffering of others can be a catalyst for transformation, inside and outside of prison. “I’ve seen guys who go into prison as tough guys. Hard rocks. Then they go to the box for like two to three years and you start to see the change in them. The thing is he says, ‘I can’t do that anymore. I am not down with that. I can’t bring that suffering on somebody else.’ Now he begins to see suffering in close quarters with people he knows and has come to care for. And then he changes.”

One of the men who was transformed in prison through his contact with Larry White was Abdur Rachman. After over 40 years in prison, Rachman has been given parole and is now participating the theater program inspired by White’s prison survival manual. “I was a boxer,” says Rachman. I had a reputation in prison. People didn’t mess with me. Larry had a different kind of reputation. He was quiet, but everybody respected him. Larry taught me that your value system has to change if you want to get out of prison and stay out. He taught me that you don’t have to be strong with your fists. You can be stronger with humility than you can be with your fists.”