Penned in from all directions by barbed wire fences, brick walls, jail cells. Constantly watched by guards armed with rifles and handguns. Little if any privacy. Again and again the wish that someone or something could turn back the hands of time and wipe out the agonizing present. This is life for hundreds of inmates at Lorton Reformatory.
One group escapes regularly, refusing to let the physical barriers imprison their minds. Called the Inner City Connection, this theater troupe of inmate performers, with a little help from friends from the outside, stays connected to life back home in the District.
When the 26 Inner City members get together for rehearsals, the first order of business is to form a circle, clench one another's hands, close their eyes and in unison state the creed that sums up their aspiration: "(Neither) steel bars nor concrete walls, however formidable, can contain the human spirit."
For two years, the Inner City Connection has tried to stay in touch with D.C. by performing plays that allow its members to sound off on the social issues of the day: crime, drugs, child abuse, politics, prison life, the justice system, unemployment and attitudes toward exoffenders. The group is currently performing "One Act," a play based on a news story that appeared in The Washington Post about "Jimmy," an 8-year-old heroin addict. a
Much of the play is impromptu, improvised. The only lines are read from newspaper clippings. "Improvisation allows us to take our feelings, our emotions and perceptions right to the stage," says Reginald Mebane, 34, an inmate who serves as the producer foor the company.
"Doing plays like 'One Act' does a lot for the character of the inmates," says Mebane. "We have thoughts, too. We have a message that needs to be heard."
"This play says what we would like to say to a lot of public officials who don't hear too well," says James Swanson, a 49-year-old inmate. "The play tells the people what we're all up against in here and out there. We're up against a war of genocide through drugs. That war was had many casualties and some of them have been us in here. One of them is Jimmy, out there -- somewhere."
Swanson, Mebane and the other inmates in Inner City want to remind people back in D.C. -- about 20 miles from their Lorton, Va., exile -- that they're still connected to what is going on. Kim Peter Kovac and his wife Ceil help them achieve this goal. The Kovacs head the non-profit corporation, also called Innter City, that recently received a $9,500 grant from the D.C. Community Humanities Council to continue the work at Lorton.
According to the proposal they submitted form the grant, the group members are to hold seminars and workshops and perform dramatic scenes that teach and interpret black history, culture and theater. Kim Peter Kovac is a technical director at the Washington Project for the Arts and artistic director form the Independent Theatre Project. His wife is a linguistics researcher for the Center for Applied Linguistics. "As it stands," say Ceil Kovac, "we must bring audiences to the central facility visiting hall to see our work. In time we hope to take the programs to the community."
"We're not missionaries of any sort," her husband says. "We just like doing this type of work. Most of what I do inside and outside Lorton is based on social commentary. I get just as much out of this as the inmates."
In "One Act," Tomasinia Blackwood, an amateur actress, plays Jimmy's mother, Andrea, who condones her son's drug habit and allows her love-in lover to hook her 8-year-old son on a dream of becoming a kingpin elementary school dope pusher.
The play begins dramatically with music from "Superfly." As Curtis Mayfield sings, four actors portray teen-agers who shuffle to the beat in a choreographed dance around an older man, Ron, Andrea's lover, played by Mike Turner, 31.
In pantomime, Ron hands the teen-agers marijuana, pills, cocaine, liquor, heroin and syringes, all to a background of Mayfield promising: "I'm your doctor when you need; want some coke, have some weed. You know me, I'm your friend your man boy, thick and thin; I'm your pusher man."
The inmates get emotionally involved in the play, says Ivory Dews, 25, a native of D.C. "We care about Jimmy as much as anyone else. We're doing this play to show the importance of drugs and to say that we think something should be done about it. It's that drug whirlwind that doomed a lot of guys in here now. It sucked them in , whirled them around, made them dizzy, made them commit all kinds of crimes and then in threw them in here. We're supposed to be cooling out in here, getting our heads together, but when we go back out there, some of us get caught by that same whirlwind. Yes, we're concerned about what's happening in D.C., because we want to be able to go back and make it when we get out of here."
The inmates in the troupe are doing time for crimes including armed robbery, forgery, stolen autos and murder. Their prison sentences range from five years to 35 years.
"People on the outside have a false idea of Lorton," says Andre Lebby, an inmate from Northwest D.C. "They think it's a mass of idiots and animals and nuts. But, they don't realize that it's programs like Inner City that allow us to keep from being like that."