by Angie Toomsen
Riverside - This past weekend, Riverside Theatre opened Killadelphia: Mixtape of a City, a one-man, 75-minute collage of observations and interviews about incarceration, violence, crime, loss and criminal reform.
Over the past decade, crime has skyrocketed in the city of Philadelphia. In the early 2000’s murders averaged over 400 a day, earning the city the reputation “a body a day” and the portentous moniker, “Killadelphia.”
In response to the growing wave of violence, the Mural Arts Program — an organization working to inject art into dark places — commissioned a short theatre piece about the program and the prisoners serving life sentences who create murals to help beautify the city. The intended outcome was a 20-minute piece to be performed for the population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pennsylvania.
Enter Sean Christopher Lewis, playwright-in-residence with the InterAct Theatre Company. Lewis accepted the challenge and began interviewing inmates about the mural project, their imprisonment, their crimes, and how they survive the daily routine when there is no chance of freedom. After meeting and interviewing some of the “lifers” at Gratersford, Lewis found he had more questions than answers, so he widened his gaze. He began to explore the parts of the city that affect — and are most profoundly affected by — Philly’s new age of violence.
The result is a 75-minute documentary-style one-man piece—narrated in first person—that gives voice to nearly 20 individuals. His interviewees include inmates serving life sentences, corrections officers, victims’ advocates and families. His characterizations also extend to the mayor, the media, and his own family members as they responded to his involvement in the project.
At first glance, Lewis is so accessible, friendly and warm that he looks like he would be a shoe-in to host a children’s television show, which makes it all-the-more impressive when he drops into the course vernacular and rough exteriors of the inmates he meets. As a performer, Lewis does an outstanding job of removing himself from the interviews. He allows his subjects to speak through him, buoyed by his own enthusiasm.
As a writer/documentarian, Lewis also allows the subjects’ perspectives to lead him. With only gentle processing, he extracts meaning from the encounters with a light touch, never imposing. I left with a collection voices and individual stories circulating in my head, some sad, some enervating, many quite funny. Some of the most profound statements made were straight from the subjects’ mouths (through Lewis).
An inmate asks Sean how “deep” his theatre piece is going to go. Confused by the question at first, Lewis listens further as the lifer explains his philosophy of two worlds that exist outside of the facility: the one Sean Christopher Lewis lives in and the one the criminals—and potential criminals—inhabit. They exist on parallel planes that often come close enough to “collide.”
Many of the inmates Lewis spoke with had received their life sentences while they were still in their teens. A judge had already decided they were too dangerous to walk as free individuals ever again.
As one prisoner says about surviving his daily routine, “it’s all about choices.”
Throughout the piece, Lewis seems to intuit that the questions and statements he encounters are situated at the pulse of a larger set of questions. He allows questions to build themselves, never directly posing them to the audience. Except for one.
Though it’s easy to call it “evil,” it’s, more specifically, lack of self-responsibility — from a tragic momentary lapse to the kind that permanently cripples an individual’s ability to make good choices — that is the root cause of the crimes that slapped his subjects with life-sentences. So, that means that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the ultimate solution, right?
Sure, except there’s a catch 22 within the criminal justice system, as many lifers see it. If they completely own up to their crimes and meet them with complete honesty — which is the only way true rehabilitation can happen — they could lose the chance for a future pardon or shortened sentence. When it comes to murder, unequivocal confessions might heal the soul, but they more thoroughly seal a lifer’s fate. Lewis asks the audience: “what would you do?”
Here, quite possibly, is a glimmer of that intersection the inmate asks Lewis about. Can you see why someone would hold fast to their innocence, if it meant the possibility that they would feel the grass again?
Lest it seem that Lewis has forgotten that the inmates murdered people — ruined lives — he does extend his interviews to the families of victims and victim advocacy groups. He voices their losses with care. One young man lived very near Lewis in Philly and had come to the city for similar reasons. Even shared the same daily route to and from work. The victim’s family member tells Lewis, “being without him is like missing the ability to laugh.” And there are others.
Killadelphia doesn’t pardon murderers. It doesn’t side with them. But it does present them as people who have committed murders. This isn’t an act of compassion, in the conventional sense. It’s reality. If you set about trying to understand how human beings commit acts that devastate lives and ruin their own, you have to try to understand why they think the way they do. The places where choices went awry. That can mean finding the places where your thinking — your potential choices in certain circumstances — could “collide” with theirs. The parts of them that aren’t criminal.
To be clear, though, Lewis states he deliberately did not attempt to answer any questions. In fact, at first, when the show’s final blackout came, I thought “it’s not done” and, frankly, felt a little frustrated. A little uncomfortable. I told my theatre companion that I was confused because the piece comprised very focused, specific moments, infused with vitality. Still, comprehensively, it didn’t have a clear message. What was the real purpose here?
After thinking about it over the weekend — because it wouldn’t leave me, quite honestly — my initial reaction re-framed itself.
The piece doesn’t feel finished because it’s just beginning a dialogue. It’s not the piece that left me unsettled, it’s the subject. Lewis is navigating a complex, frustrating topic. When it comes to violence, inner-city crime and prison reform, the issue is so convoluted and so mired in bureaucracy and politics that the questions aren’t even clear.
Is redemption possible in the current system? What purpose do the murals serve? Can art fix anything? Should people be given the possibility of forgiveness in this lifetime? And so on, and so on. Any one of these questions could have been a guiding focus but a definitive question would have narrowed the process and prevented Lewis from collecting and telling the stories — the stories that found him as much as he found them.
Killadelphia: Mixtape of a City plays through March 14 at Riverside Theater. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. and are followed by a talk back with Lewis after every performance.