February 22, 2023

“Felon” Solo Show, Related Events Highlight Need for Reading in Prisons

THE PRISON EXPERIENCE: Reginald Dwayne Betts on the set of “Felon: An American Washi Tale,” which features “kites” (prison letters) designed by visual artist Kyoko Ibe. The show comes to McCarter Theatre Center March 2, 3, and 4 in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University. (Photo by Barbara Johnston, courtesy of Reginald Dwayne Betts/Freedom Reads)

By Wendy Greenberg

When teenaged Reginald Dwayne Betts, incarcerated and in solitary confinement, yelled out a request for a book, a poetry book was slid under his cell door. Now, 23 years after his release from prison, Betts explores his incarceration in a solo theater show based on his own American Book Award-winning poetry collection.

Not coincidentally, Felon: An American Washi Tale, being performed at McCarter Theatre Center March 2, 3, and 4, with related community events including an ongoing art exhibit, has a mission of encouraging the availability of literature in prison.

The solo show written and performed by Betts, and developed and directed by Elise Thoron, is based on Betts’ experience of incarceration, and is a meditation on criminal justice, artmaking, and community. After his release, Betts earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Warren Wilson College, and a juris doctor degree from Yale Law School. In 2020, he founded Freedom Reads, an organization that gives incarcerated people access to books by donating libraries to correctional facilities. In 2018 Betts received a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2021 he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. He is currently working on a Ph.D. in law at Yale University.

The development of Felon: An American Washi Tale, has been a studied process. Jane Cox, director of Princeton University’s theater program at the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the production’s lighting designer, said she first got involved with the theater piece during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“We worked over Zoom for a few months as Dwayne and Elise, the director and dramaturg, created an initial shape for a solo show out of Betts’ book of poems, Felon,” said Cox. “It was immediately clear how exciting the project was both from a theatrical point of view, and from the point of view of humanizing the experience of incarceration, and post incarceration, for audiences. We are all complicit in the American carceral system, but some of us are quite removed from the actual experience.”

Cox suggested that the Lewis Center consider participating in developing the piece, and when the campus theaters reopened in the summer of 2021, the Betts piece was offered in a live performance. Since then it has toured to many prisons and been further developed at Duke University and the New Haven Arts and Ideas Festival, said Cox.

Thoron, the co-founding artistic director of an educational theater program called Literature to Life that adapts books into solo performances to inspire a passion for reading in students, has been involved in the piece for a few years. Betts had asked her to help develop a solo show that could be performed in prisons, “since he felt this was the way people inside would actually connect to his book,” she said.

When they met, Thoron had just returned from a trip to Japan working with Washi Tale collaborator Kyoko Ibe, a distinguished paper artist, on an article about their decade-long theater collaboration based on handmade Japanese paper, washi.

“On the flight home, I read Dwayne’s book Felon and was surprised that in the opening poem there was a couplet about a papermaker,” said Thoron. “So, I asked him, ‘Why a papermaker?’” And Dwayne showed me photos of making paper from his friends’ clothing who were still doing time in prison, and I showed him photos of our Washi Tale sets made by Kyoko of handmade paper and old documents.

“Betts’ ‘prison paper’ was beautiful gray, but sat in his closet; he didn’t know what to do with it, and I found myself saying ‘well that’s our set’ — you can take in into prison, it’s only paper. And that was the beginning — it felt like the universe was propelling us into doing the actual work of the show, which has been intense and ever-evolving in tandem with Dwayne’s organization Freedom Reads, installing micro libraries in housing units in prisons across the country, where he now performs the show. So, we are kindred souls in washi and books.”

The piece took shape during Betts’ Felon book tour in 2019, as different sequences of poems were read, and they discussed what stories to best set them up and looked at the possible dramatic arcs running through the show, said Thoron. They settled on the structure of moving from poetry to prose, “which keeps the ear fresh for both.” They also decided that the storytelling in between poems would be highly structured improvisation.

The first time it was performed in a theater was August 2021, in a creative residency at the Lewis Center. “In the Princeton creative residency, we explored the theatrical elements of the show, adding Jane’s [Cox] lighting and Palmer Hefferan’s [Lewis Center guest artist] sound design,” said Thoron. The show went to other universities as it continued to evolve.

“Most importantly, he started performing the show in prisons as part of the Freedom Library installations he was doing with his new organization Freedom Reads,” said Thoron. “The show changed as prisoners asked good questions in post-show dialogue with Dwayne, the focus tightened, and the length, to what we are currently working on in this Princeton residency at the Berlind Theatre. We are so excited to return post-pandemic and have time with our extraordinary theatrical collaborators at Princeton, and for the first time, Kyoko Ibe with us from Japan, and finally be able to share Felon: An American Washi Tale with audiences here.”

Audiences, she said, may come to understand that “we are connected in unknown ways. Anything is possible after prison. Mercy is essential, but not easy. Storytelling is an important part of being human, as is listening. And a book can transform a life.”

As the project evolved, Cox said, “we began relationships with communities on campus and off, and started to understand the many ways that Princeton University is already involved in prison education and reform.”

In addition to the audience for the performances, said Cox, “the conversations, events, and workshops include more than a dozen campus units (academic and otherwise), more than a dozen New Jersey organizations, more than 150 high school students and returning citizens, and approximately 200 members of our immediate campus community (including students, staff, and faculty). We are delighted in the ways in which this project has already created new relationships and conversations, and are so looking forward to sharing space, conversation, and art with so many people!”

Felon will be performed March 2 and 3 at 7 p.m. and March 4 at 2:30 p.m., at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place. An exhibition of work made from traditional Japanese washi paper by Ibe is on view through March 5 in the Hurley Gallery. For additional companion events and information, visit arts.princeton.edu.