From behind bars to the stage: New DC program gives prisoners a voice

'No matter what we did, we're people too' (WTOP's Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON — Wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and ripped jeans, 27-year-old Davon stood on stage at the Anacostia Arts Center’s Black Box Theater and did a few breathing exercises.

Then, he ran through his lines one last time.

In May, Davon was released from prison after spending four and a half years behind bars. Now, he is adjusting to life back at home, and trying out a new hobby — theater.

“There’s some real dark stuff that goes on behind those walls, and people don’t know,” said Davon, who requested his last name be withheld.

“When I was in there, I had a lot to say. I had a lot of feelings pouring out on paper, but there was nobody there to hear it, or nobody who actually wanted to hear it.”

But on Tuesday, July 24, a number of people did want to hear it. An audience of about 50 showed up to watch Davon and four other previously incarcerated individuals narrate the realities of imprisonment and release at the debut performance of “Voices Unbarred.”

The program is from D.C.-based artist and theater director Lori Pitts, who worked with 36 men at the Petersburg Federal Correctional Institution to write and perform their prison experiences. Then, she enlisted the help of five former prisoners to share the stories with the outside world.

Skits in Tuesday’s performance covered topics such as the feelings of isolation prisoners endure and the challenges they face upon release — especially when it comes to securing a job and housing.

Actors rehearse “Voices Unbarred,” a play that speaks to the realities of prison, written by prisoners. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

“I think it’s just very important to raise awareness because there are so many things — if you’ve never been to jail or prison — that you have no idea that they encounter,” Pitts said.

“And I hear people say, ‘Oh they should just try harder.’ ‘Why don’t they get a job?’ And so I think this gives you the nuance that you need to know … I think it’s very important just to see these stories, hear actual people tell them so that they’re also humanized,” Pitts said.

Andrea, another performer whose last name is also being withheld, heard about “Voices Unbarred” from a moms group in which she is involved. The 37-year-old is currently out on bond after spending two weeks in prison, and she decided to take to the stage to help others like her.

“You can speak out and you can basically help someone else if they went through the same situation, or prevent them from going through that same situation,” she said.

Next month, Pitts is going back to Petersburg to work with a new group of prisoners to bring their stories to light; some of these accounts will be shared in future performances, such as the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival on Sept. 3.

“Voices Unbarred” actor Davon said the program has given him the opportunity to be a megaphone for others who are silenced.

“Because I was just in those same shoes. You know, everybody has these ideas of what we are, who we are. But no matter what we did, we’re people too, and we have a voice,” he said.


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