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Multimedia performance challenges justice system

Bryonn Bain uses show to reflect on stint in jail, question racial profiling in criminal justice process

In 2002, Bryonn Bain was pulled over for an extinct left taillight. He was arrested for three outstanding warrants — charges he denied — and spent three days and two nights in jail before he was released without being convicted. In the end, the wrongful charges were a case of identity theft. Out of this experience came Bain’s one-man multimedia performance “Lyrics From Lockdown,” which intertwines a variety of art forms from hip-hop to calypso. Bain will take the stage at Churchill House for three performances this weekend.

Bain first performed his show in 2009, but it only reached a wider audience just last year. Bain recounted his arrest in a journal, he said, which acted as a kind of self-therapy to help him understand his experiences before assembling the show. Since the premiere, Bain has staged “Lyrics From Lockdown” around the world, including in California, New York and Belgium.

In his choreography, Bain also weaves in correspondences with his friend Nanon Williams, who was on death row in Texas from the age of 17. In 2005, this conviction was converted to a life sentence, according to Williams’ Facebook page. But in 2010, a federal judge re-examined Williams’s case and decided he should be released, Bain said, adding that this decision was repealed and Williams remains imprisoned. At times during the performance, the stage turns dark and an audio clip of Williams’ voice plays, giving the audience powerful insight into the experience of an individual on death row.

This same Texas prison has banned Bain’s book, “The Ugly Side of Beautiful,” because prison officials decided the content could provoke race riots, Bain said.

Bain completed an undergraduate degree studying political science at Columbia, before going on to study legislative theater at Harvard Law School and performance poetry at New York University.

“You have one more degree than Obama does — how come he ends up in the White House and you end up in the jail house?” Bain said his mother often jokes.

Bain comes from a family of performers: His father was a calypso singer, and Bain and his brothers performed in prisons throughout their teens, he said. His artistic heritage and extensive education are evident in his performance — his powerful voice fills the auditorium with expression, and he commands the stage with authority, portraying 40 different characters in the show. He handily balances emotion with comic relief, recounting stories about his family prior to his incarceration.

Bain transitions seamlessly between spoken word, rap, traditional acting and calypso singing, stringing together these diverse styles to communicate his tale to the audience. Video DJs who present images on three projectors and a live band, including a bassist, guitarist and saxophonist, accompany Bain’s performance.

“Lyrics From Lockdown” aims to open up a conversation about racial profiling and the related systemic and institutional issues, Bain said. He plans to meet Saturday with community organizers, faculty members and student activists to discuss the problems he has raised, he said.

In addition to his work as a performer, Bain has worked as a community activist to raise the age of criminality — the age at which an individual can be tried as an adult — in New York City from 16 to 18. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has shown support for this movement, he said. After hearing about activists’ shut down of a Oct. 29 scheduled lecture by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Bain added that he hopes his performance can add to the conversation about Kelly’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy.


“Lyrics From Lockdown” runs tonight at 7 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Churchill House.


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