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Performance explores inequality in criminal justice system

Everett Theatre Company performs 'The Freedom Project' after two years of research, study

Paper brings the reality of the prison experiences portrayed in “The Freedom Project” to life. An actor wearing a paper mask and cloak falls to the ground as he is pummeled by paper rocks. His attire resembles the clothing and head covering in a well-publicized photo of a prisoner tortured at the Abu Ghraib prison. Another actor playing a teacher ponders the failures of the public school system while carrying a large crumpled piece of paper on her back — an embodiment of the burden standardized testing places on her at-risk students.

The Everett Theatre Company performed “The Freedom Project” last Saturday, delivering the culmination of two years of research and interviews to a packed Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. The piece incorporates elements of theater, media, dance and poetry to explore mass incarceration in America. The performance synthesizes personal experiences, statistics and academic research to expose racial and socioeconomic inequalities in the criminal justice system.

“I want the real world, the stories of the people we interviewed, to connect with the world of the paper,” said Aaron Jungels, who directs and acts in “The Freedom Project.” “The paper, what it’s standing for, is open-ended.”

The audience’s potentially diverse responses to the paper reflect this principle. To some audience members, the paper could represent the massive amount of paperwork and bureaucracy involved in mass incarceration. Still other scenes focused the audience’s attention on the racial undertones of mass incarceration, evidence by the disproportionate number of people of color in prison compared to those who are white.

“The Freedom Project” remains a work in progress, though it was performed on campus over the weekend. The show will premiere in March 2015 and tour until December 2017.

“We want to start as many different conversations as we can across the country,” Jungels said.

Jungels said the cast of “The Freedom Project” has conducted about 20 interviews, in addition to extensive literature and documentary research. The performers have also helped create and shape the direction of the piece over the course of its rehearsal. Most of the stories incorporated belong to Providence locals and the performers themselves, many of whom were also incarcerated or have family members and friends who have been imprisoned.

The performance features several notably poignant moments, including one scene exploring a woman’s gang involvement. Her face is projected on paper held up by another performer as she describes a life defined by “baggy clothes and Timberland boots.” In another sequence, a man struggles to convince a judge not to deport a family member.

“I may be killed because my gang color affiliation is the color of my skin,” said Christopher Johnson, a “Freedom Project” performer and a member of Brown’s WORD! spoken-word poetry group, as he gave testimony about his experiences as a man of color.

One story “was so raw and powerful that we barely edited it,” Jungels said. The monologue the audience heard on stage repeated “almost verbatim” the interview of one Providence local, Caitlin Patenaude, who struggled with drug addiction and prison life.

The people who shared their stories “want to change the system,” Jungels said. “They are happy that we are giving a venue for their stories to have an impact on changing public opinion.”

Two of the women who were interviewed for the project were present at Saturday’s performance. It was their first time seeing their stories translated on stage, Jungels added.

Youth and teachers at the Everett Theatre Company live many of the problems addressed in “The Freedom Project,” Jungels said, adding that the company offers free classes for low-income youth in Providence. Many of these individuals have experienced gang involvement, have been raised by incarcerated parents or have encountered racial profiling, life events they then translate to the Everett stage.

“The Freedom Project” also draws from Freedom Cafes, a series of public forums with short performances and presentations that aim to spark discussion about mass incarceration. About seven forums have been held so far, Jungels said, adding that Trisha Rose, professor of Africana Studies, gave a presentation at one of the gatherings. The Cafe not only provides Jungels and his team a place to try out potential performance material, but the forums also inspire new material for “The Freedom Project.”

One public school teacher’s shared experiences inspired a scene where an actor carries a large piece of crumpled paper and delivers a monologue about the struggles of teaching at-risk children due to the weaknesses of the public school system.

Jungels said he hopes to hold Freedom Cafes in cities throughout “The Freedom Project” tour over the next three years, adding that this might contribute further to the material explored in the performance.

“The Freedom Project” also encourages collaboration with the audience. During Saturday’s show, randomly selected audience members threw paper rocks, held pieces of paper for visual projections and interacted with bubbles — clustered together to look like clouds — expelled from a machine that the actors then dispersed into the theater.

The production also employs multimedia to project interview subjects onto white paper against a cloudy dark blue background. In one sequence, a woman’s face appears against a backdrop of cinder blocks, feet and paper pouring from her mouth through a gap in the cinder blocks, as she asks a stream of insensitive questions.

“I like the contrast of heavy and light,” Jungels said, referring to his agile use of materials ranging from bubbles to concrete. He said the materials were chosen with consideration of both the “metaphorical possibilities” and the harsh realities of prison life.

There is an increasing preponderance of discussion about mass incarceration across the country, Jungels said, adding that he hopes “The Freedom Project” will tap into that conversation.

Though it is primarily founded on the experiences of Providence locals, Jungels said “The Freedom Project” will resonate across America, because “through the specific, things become universal.”


Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Christopher Johnson as a member of the class of 2017. In fact, he is an adult artist in the Providence community. The Herald regrets the error.



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