MONDAY, Feb. 25 — A hard look at the criminal justice system, from the dual perspectives of its employees and its prisoners, is coming to the Wharton Center Wednesday.
Theater of War Productions’ latest project using the myth of Prometheus as its framework, “Promethea in Prison,” features an all-female cast, including Sonja Sohn and Deirdre Lovejoy from HBO’s “The Wire,” and a town hall style discussion with Dominic DuPont, a man imprisoned for 21 years before his clemency from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“Theater of War Productions is oriented toward addressing issues of social justice and public health through live theater,” co-founder Bryan Doerries said. “It acts as a catalyst for community-driven discussion about taboo and divisive subjects.”
Over the past 10 years, Theater of War Productions’ 25 different projects have been performed over 900 times in locations across the globe. A project consists of a dramatic cold-reading, in this instance Aeschylus’ ancient Greek play “Prometheus Bound,” followed by a town hall discussion.
The readings become a focal point for audiences to learn more about an issue from one another’s personal experiences. Theater of War projects are oft-performed on the front lines of the issues they address, such as homeless shelters, addiction clinics, prisons and military bases. The original version of this project, the male cast “Prometheus in Prison,” was even performed at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Doerries, who has written several books on Greek mythology, honed his expertise on the subject while studying Greek, Latin and Hebrew literature in college.
“I always believed there was a wider audience for these ancient stories than the rarified few of us who got to them in college and university,” Doerries said. “It’s not a teaching mission I’m on. It’s about learning from audiences.”
The idea to read “Prometheus Bound” as a method of extracting emotional responses about the criminal justice system was born from Doerries’ experience speaking to audiences at Theater of War projects performed at military bases.
“I had the idea that this play would speak to people who worked in prison or had been in prison,” Doerries said. “The focus was on creating a conversation within corrections through one central question: ‘Is the job of corrections to punish or rehabilitate?’ I think Americans are divided by that question.”
When onsite in prisons, “Prometheus in Prison” was able to remove barriers between staff and inmates. It provided a safe space to facilitate conversations about the complex web of emotions each group felt about their position in the facility.
“Everybody in prison is playing a role,” Doerries said. “It’s hard to come out from behind those roles without fear that you might compromise your ability to either do your job or survive.”
The tale of mythological Greek titan Prometheus — who stole fire from the Gods and gifted it to mankind, only to be imprisoned and tortured for his actions — has been a continuous inspiration in media since the original myth’s inception.
“This idea of a prisoner with no power within the system that is completely stacked against him, who ends up creating a myth out of his own suffering and becomes a martyr, is something we use as a tool for engaging not only for those who work in corrections, but also those who have been on the inside,” Doerries said.
Doerries said the revamp coming to Wharton, which acknowledges its female cast with the redub of Prometheus to Promethea, has already evoked powerful responses since being taken to women’s correctional facilities.
When either version of the play is read with former-convicts in attendance, many of them draw parallels between their correction officers and Prometheus and Promethea’s godly wardens.
An audience member at a public performance of “Prometheus in Prison” in New York City told the discussion panel, “I met a lot of COs that act like Zeus — it’s really amazing. I really saw racism and oppression at its finest. That whole play was a perfect example of what it’s really like.”
But another audience member at a difference performance, a corrections officer, had a clashing perspective.
“A corrections officer stood up and said, ‘I’m Prometheus. I’m chained to the rock. I spend eight-hours in here everyday and, from the perspective of the media and the depictions of those who work inside, I am vilified as much as those who are in my custody,’” Doerries recalled.
Doerries reiterated that both “Prometheus” and “Promethea” are all about having conversations that cross the two lines without judgment.
“If we don't humanize, engage and get into the trenches with those who are carrying out our criminal justice policy in America, if we perfectly distance ourselves from them as to not be polluted by the things they face every day, the blood is still on our hands.”
“Promethea in Prison”
7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 27
Tickets start at $24
Wharton Center for Performing Arts
750 E. Shaw Ln., East Lansing