Playwriting for incarcerated youth is one of Success Centers’ core arts programs. Alsa Bruno, our former Arts Program Coordinator, serves as a mentor for the young writers, and occasionally as an actor for the concluding performances. He shares this story.
I got paired with a someone who we’ll call “Bandz”, a tall, barrel-chested young man with a cup-full of a beard splashed across his chin and a hearty smile at the ready. He seemed happy to be paired with me as he thought of me as a kindred spirit—my chest and smile are enormous—and he appreciated how often I used humor as I taught. Bandz had been in detention for years and was referred to as O.G. by both the youth and staff. He had previously participated in our playwriting program, so he was excited to help teach other students how to write their plays. Bandz often found opportunities to share what he knew, for example holding rap cypher workshops with other inmates, and he turned out to be a natural mentor to those fortunate enough to be on the unit with him.
His play was about a young animal who struggled with the options for his future as he considered the people he loved most. He asked me about my experience going to college and searched for the similarities in our stories that could give him clarity for his play. I mentioned that he reminded me of a young man I’d met a few years before going to college who had saved my life and he smirked as scribbled out more of his story.
Bandz completed his play early and then languished over how it should end. He directed the actors perfectly and was an impeccable role model, going so far as to display patient listening while being chided, even when he knew he was in the right! However, what impressed me the most was during the feelback. Bandz stood between me and his mother, holding her hand and resting his elbow on my shoulder (I am very short). When the students were prompted to speak, he listened to everyone and applauded after each student, making eyes at other students throughout to show that the words being spoken were especially relevant to them. Finally, he raised his hand off of my shoulder and said, “I mean… y’all didn’t have to do this. Coming here, working with us when we don’t even know we wanna be with y’all and we don’t know if we going home and we don’t know if we even are gonna be happy when class comes. What I do know is… I did this program because I just wanna make my Mama proud of me. Seeing her here, like this, with me, and just proud, man… that’s everything. Thank you for giving me the chance to make my Mama proud.”
The boys from the hall let loose a flurry of snaps and nods in support of Bandz’s words. His earnestness had the rest of us fighting tears. Bandz hugged his mother for a minute, and then gave me one final dap of appreciation.
Bandz was off of the unit by the time we returned for the next playwriting series, but it was clear from the behavior of the boys who were there that his impact had been felt. They were looking out for each other and encouraging each other to show up to have the chance to make their Mama proud.