“Caged” Compiles Stories Shared by New Jersey Inmates; Harsh, Moving Drama Is Premiered at Passage Theatre
“CAGED” IN REHEARSAL: Performances are underway for “Caged.” Directed by Jerrell L. Henderson, the play runs through May 20 at Passage Theatre. From left: cast members Nicolette Lynch, Brandon Rubin, Monah Yancy, and Ural Grant are rehearsing their parts. (Photo by Damion Parran)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Passage Theatre Company is concluding its season with the world premiere of Caged. Written by the New Jersey Prison Cooperative, this play is the synthesis of experiences shared by current or former inmates in the New Jersey prison system. The result is a cohesive, engaging drama in which an African American man struggles to protect his family — and preserve his humanity — in the face of poverty and incarceration.
The scenery by Germán Cárdenas-Alaminos is a cement wall, against which have been placed two beds. A natural assumption is that the action will start in a jail cell. However, the first scene takes place in the Moore family’s apartment. The prison-like appearance of their home emphasizes the extent to which incarceration — real and societal — has permeated their lives.
A cradle is the only clue that the initial setting is a bedroom rather than a cell. Chimene Moore is singing her baby grandson, Zaire, to sleep. Her choice of lullaby is the spiritual “Go Down Moses.” She tells her daughter Sharonda, “My grandma sang this to me. An’ her grandma sang it to her. An’ before that a mama, blood of my blood, sang it to her little girl or boy, born into slavery … all these mamas had to fight the evil in the world was love … an’ song.”
“Tell all pharaoes to let my people go!” Chimene sings with a pleasing, expressive voice. Monah Yancy brings grace and dignity to the role of Chimene, who we discover is receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer. One of the Moore family’s crucial concerns is the need to provide her with enough food, and fill her prescriptions.
Sharonda has had a DUI conviction, and this is causing further financial hardships for the family. In addition to her fines, she is paying to attend an alcoholism prevention class.
Expenses such as these lead Chimene’s son Omar, who is Zaire’s father, to be in the drug trade. Omar has been on probation, which has made it nearly impossible for him to get a job. In preparing cocaine for sale, Omar enlists the help of his younger brother Quan. However, Omar is determined that this only will be until a fellow dealer, Shorty, gets out of jail. Omar wants Quan, who dreams of opening his own bowling alley, to keep off the streets and stay in school. Ural Grant brings a youthful eagerness, and fragile innocence, to the role of Quan.
The entire family has an edgy relationship with Omar’s father, Jimmy, a world-weary junkie. Jimmy often has been a negligent husband and father, and scoffs at Chimene’s faith. A confrontation between Jimmy and Omar nearly leads to gunshots. However, Jimmy shares Omar’s wish to keep Quan out of the drug trade.
Omar is arrested after a drug deal goes wrong. Chimene visits her son in jail, though their time is punctuated by incessant interruptions. The Moore kitchen table, which symbolized the family’s efforts to stay together, becomes the visitation booth. Quan also visits Omar, whom we learn has been offered a sentence of 17 years as part of a plea deal. “Get that money from Shorty and take care of Mommy’s medicine,” Omar tells Quan.
Along with other inmates, Omar is stripped and inspected. “My name is Officer Watkins,” snaps the officer in the prison intake unit. “What Officer Watkins say in Officer Watkins’ prison goes. Hand Officer Watkins your boots.” Having the officer refer to himself in the third person underlines the dehumanizing aspect of prison. Notably, after Omar removes his boots, Watkins tells him to “bang them together and hand them to me.”
The first character in the prison to be kind to Omar is his cellmate, Ojore, who offers him soda and food. A 1960s radical and member of the Black Liberation Army, Ojore encourages Omar to read books such as Malcolm X Speaks. Omar says that he doesn’t “do books.” Ojore replies, “in this cell we do books.”
Under the skillful direction of Jerrell L. Henderson, the production makes effective use of dualism. Just as a single set serves as both the Moore apartment and Omar’s cell, Will Badgett portrays Jimmy and Ojore, the two father figures in Omar’s life.
One of Jimmy’s first lines is “I got to run,” and Badgett’s portrayal of the character is marked by quick body movements to show that this is a way of life for him. By contrast, Badgett brings a sense of equanimity to Ojore that makes him more comfortably paternal.
Omar learns from a newspaper article that Quan has been killed on the street; Shorty also has been shot, but survives. A shackled Omar is permitted a brief visit to the funeral home, but his family is not allowed to join him. “I should have been there for you,” Omar tells Quan’s body; in the apartment Jimmy tells Chimene that “I should have been there for that boy.” The juxtaposition is a heartrending use of a split scene.
The role of the guard who supervises Omar’s trip to the funeral home is given nuance by actor Andrew Binger. The guard is dispassionate for most of the scene; as they leave, however, a slightly pained facial expression suggests that he feels a bit more empathy for Omar than he is letting on.
Through Slash, an inmate who “used to run” with Jimmy, Ojure learns that Chimene has died. Ojure shows Omar a letter from Sharonda, urging him to reply — and to call Zaire. “I don’t have no words … no feelings,” mumbles a numb Omar. Ojure encourages him to let himself grieve; “Be hurt … feel … then you can heal. Once you can’t feel, you can’t act. You lose your humanity.”
Omar’s battle to preserve his humanity is powerfully convincing. This is a credit to the script, and to Brandon Rubin’s courageous, layered performance. Rubin’s body language accentuates both Omar’s protective nature and his determined stoicism. This impassivity falters only slightly throughout much of the play; this allows Omar’s emotionally pivotal scene, in which he (with Ojore’s encouragement) is able to release much of his grief, to be a salient evolution for the character.
Reading Sharonda’s letter, Omar discovers that she too is in prison, for unpaid fines “on that old DUI.” Her letter is an account of her fellow inmates’ experiences; one is being denied critical medications. “Medical gave her Motrin and charged her account. She’s too weak and dizzy to walk.” This monologue is harrowing, but its delivery is a highlight of Nicolette Lynch’s strong performance as Sharonda.
Having discovered that Quan’s killer is being transferred to the prison, Omar plans to “shank” him. Both Ojure and Slash warn him about the consequences, including a life sentence, if he goes through with the stabbing. Omar blames himself for Quan’s death; “he could barely sell anything once I got locked up. This is the least I can do.” Slash urges Omar to focus on getting out — for Sharonda and Zaire.
Miranda Kelly’s projections, which appear on one corner of the cement background, are effective in establishing the settings of place and time, as are the costumes by An-lin Dauber. Beth Lake’s sound design, which includes recordings of sirens and gunshots, works with Daniel Schreckengost’s lighting to accentuate the incessant noise and danger with which the characters contend.
Cast member Boris Franklin served 11 years in prison, and was released in 2015. Currently he is a junior at Rutgers University, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in sociology. As an actor, Franklin is equally effective in portraying the oppressive Officer Watkins, who processes Omar for incarceration; and Slash, who tries to prevent him from taking actions that will lead to imprisonment for life. (Franklin also plays a dispassionate social worker.)
While in prison, Franklin took a course in urban history, taught by Princeton-based journalist Chris Hedges, a minister and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In 2013 Hedges assigned a drama class consisting of 28 inmates — the basis of the New Jersey Prison Cooperative — to write scenes detailing incidents from their lives.
“Here were men writing about prison, and about the equally imprisoning power of poverty outside prison,” Hedges tells philly.com. “Sometimes I’d mix scenes, take part of one and add it to another. My primary job was editing and cementing and shaping.” The resulting script distills recurring themes of cyclical injustice, the importance of mentors, and the need for faith.
The decision to bring Caged to Passage Theatre was that of June Ballinger, the company’s former artistic director. Franklin revised the script, with help from Ballinger, current Passage artistic director C. Ryanne Domingues, and Jeffrey Wise, who directed workshops in New York City.
Through astute dramaturgical choices, individual stories have been integrated into a cohesive, poignant narrative. Brutal — but necessary — details make the characters distinctive, and their lives excruciatingly realistic. This unrelenting realism, in tandem with an outstanding production, compels the audience to be moved by their stories.
“Caged” will play at Passage Theatre in the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street in Trenton, through May 20. For tickets, show times, and information call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.