Yesterday, I went to a benefit performance of the Off- Broadway show “The Castle,” in which four former inmates tell their stories and praise The Fortune Society. For 40 years, the society has worked on such folks’ behalf, and ten years ago bought the castle where this movie was filmed and turned it into a halfway house. The group’s director, Jo Ann Page, told me last week that the play felt like a return to the origins of the group, born of founder David Rothenberg’s play “Fortune and Men’s Eyes.” “David was saying, ‘look—we started on Broadway, now we’re back almost on Broadway!’ And meanwhile, one of the players was saying, ‘Last year I was in lockup. Now I’m Off-Broadway!’”
The play itself is a touch didactic – while Variety called it “immensely eloquent,” the Times said drily, “This is theatre verging on a public service announcement” – but it made me think about something I’d noticed since I first started covering prison stuff: the extent to which these ex-offenders reminded me of so many of the GI’s I used to counsel. Serious people, who’ve been through something I can’t claim to share (and likely wouldn’t want to).
That impression was redoubled last night by a conversation I had with the wife of one of the leads in the play, herself a graduate of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. After we bonded talking about a friend of hers I’d written about, she spoke of some programs at the prison that had been restored with the help of “some civilians.” I’d not known that former prisoners also talked about “civilians.”
“Are you a veteran?” hotline callers used to ask me, back in the day. “You just seem like you understand.” Not a soldier, I would reply softly, but maybe not quite a civilian either. Maybe my task as a writer is to hover in that not-quite-civilian zone. Because, as my brilliant friend Jine pointed out a few weeks ago, the most important thing journalists can do is not the stories we tell, but that we listen.