‘The Freedom Project’ channels voices from behind bars

Ari Brisbon. —Photo by Justine Bevilacqua

This weekend, the Yard is sponsoring the latest in its off-season performances by visiting artists. “The Freedom Project,” a multidisciplinary production, focuses on the issue of mass incarceration, a subject which has recently been generating headlines around the globe, and has a profound impact on our nation as a whole. The work draws on interviews with a number of subjects who have firsthand experience with the prison system.

The Everett Company of Providence, R.I., which created and performs the piece, describes itself on its website as “an intergenerational, multicultural company of professional artists that creates original concert works and video productions, carries out a wide range of educational programs, and mentors new generations of young artists.”

Formed in 1986, the Everett Company has been nationally recognized for its work, and has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, among others. In 2014, the Yard brought the company to the Vineyard for a residency and a performance of their previous show, “Brainstorm,” which focused on brain injury and the workings of the brain.

Like Everett’s other theater and dance pieces, “The Freedom Project” is presented in a unique way, incorporating movement, music, spoken word, video projections, and design-oriented props. Although the videotaped interviews are the basis of much of the material, the show is hardly a series of talking heads interspersed with moments of dance. The video projections are presented in creative ways, and all of the elements are fully integrated to produce a piece that is entertaining, educational, and harrowing as well as uplifting. On the whole, the subjects have managed to turn their lives around, and in some cases have been able to use their experience to help others.

Some of the cast members take on the role of the interviewees, like a former crack addict who gave birth while in prison. Others, like the youngest performer Ari Brisbon, tell their own stories through words and movement. Acclaimed spoken-word artist and national poetry slam champion Christopher Johnson relates his experience of a group nonfatal shooting that he took part in under duress by gang members.

“The Freedom Project” came about in an organic matter. The Everett Group has become nationally recognized for its unique experimental theater projects, as well as for its educational initiatives.

“We have a school in Providence where we offer free training in performing arts to low-income youth,” co-artistic director and executive director Aaron Jungels said. “As we grow these young artists, we offer them professional training and income through performing and teaching. We’ve become deeply a part of the community in Providence, and we’ve been seeing the impact of the steep incarceration rates in this community. Some of the kids are angry because they’ve been targeted by police or have family members incarcerated. A couple of members who left us ended up in prison. A lot of them have experienced violence in their lives. It was something that was close to home for us. We felt the need to address this issue.”

“The Freedom Project” was begun in 2012. As with past shows, the final product is a result of extensive research and work. “We do a series of cafés and public forums where we show works in progress. We bring in experts,” Mr. Jungels said. Those interviewed in the research phase include current and formerly incarcerated men and women, police officers, university scholars, public school teachers, public defenders, and correctional officers.

Through the Freedom Cafés and other outreach initiatives, the Everett Company discovered many of the show’s subjects. Mr. Jungels said, “something that was really surprising and gratifying was how many people who had been incarcerated came forward wanting to share their stories.”

Mr. Jungels notes that while the show was in its incubation stage, mass incarceration was not the hot topic that it is today. “I think a lot of it has come out in the mainstream media more and more,” he said. “The huge racial disparities among the people in prison and the overall numbers are astronomical. There was this steep rise from the 1970s, when we’d been in a plateau for many years, and went into this steep incline from 200,000 to two and a half million. Suddenly we were the most incarcerating country in the world, ahead of China and Russia. We think of our country as being free, not oppressive. Nobody was really talking about it or doing anything.”

The Everett Company is taking its own unique approach to addressing the problem. “The Freedom Project” is described on their website as “a multiyear organizational initiative exploring the roles theater and performance can play in the movement to end mass incarceration in America.”

So far, the piece has been performed at Brown University, the Aranoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati, and many other venues. From the Vineyard, the “Freedom Project” will go on to locations in Western Massachusetts and Vermont. The company is working on researching and exploring funding for a second “Freedom Project” piece that will expand on the current work.

“The Freedom Project”: Saturday, March 12, at 6:30 pm at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $25 (general); $15 (seniors 65-plus, students, active military); $5 (children under 12). This performance contains mature content, and may not be suitable for children under 12. For more information, visit dancetheyard.org.