Saturday, November 19, 2011

Prison Performance

Rita's parents, Curtiss and Janice, are on an LDS mission and serve in the Church Office Building with a man that is assigned to work with one of the wards at the Utah State Prison. He is in charge of an entertainment night that the ward holds once a month. When the man heard Curtiss recite cowboy poetry, he asked Curtiss to perform for the inmates in the ward. Because the performance was going to be nearly two hours long, Curtiss asked Rita and Janice to sing and also asked Todd and me to play djembe.

The performance was last night, and I feel like it was a real success. We had a couple of snags come up, but we were able to overcome them for the most part. The first issue was that we learned that Todd wouldn't be allowed in the prison because he's too young. You have to be 18 to enter the building. That meant that I would have to perform alone. My djembe abilities are limited to playing a small part in a larger ensemble, so the thought of me playing solo seemed like a bad idea. The other snag was that Rita came down with a cold that left her very hoarse. It didn't seem like she was going to be able to sing. As we drove to the prison, Rita and I were both anxious that our respective performances would be abysmal.

Entering the prison was about how you would imagine it to be: Huge razor-wire fences, motorized gates, speaking to security through an intercom, etc. There were about 40 inmates that were there for the performance, which was held in a room that reminded me a lot of a junior high school gym.

The event was a bit surreal. On the one hand it was just like any other church social in that someone conducted, the bishopric was in attendance, and the event started with a prayer. But on the other hand, all the inmates were wearing white jumpsuits and there was a guard by the door watching the whole thing.

Rita's father went first. If you've ever heard him perform cowboy poetry, you know that everyone really enjoyed it. It seemed to take the inmates just a minute to warm up to what I imagine was for them a totally unfamiliar form of entertainment. But, after a few minutes they were laughing and applauding at the jokes and poems.

After about 20 minutes of poetry, Rita and her mother sang. They performed Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, which is a song that Janice and her sister used to perform at wedding receptions. They also sang two holiday songs. Rita was worried about her voice, but once she started singing it seemed to me to be just as lovely as ever. It was a bit quiet, but they just moved closer to the microphone and the problem was solved.

Curtiss performed for another spell and then I was up. I was a little nervous and I told them that my  "entertainment" would be more like an instructional demonstration than a performance. Despite my self-consciousness, it was obvious that the inmates were genuinely interested. They asked great questions and a few even volunteered to try out some of the rhythms I taught. Rita was able to fill in a few details about the rhythms and culture and we passed the drums around for the inmates to look at. It actually turned out to be a rewarding experience and re-ignited my desire to learn to play the djembe better.

Curtiss finished off with a few more jokes and poems and then they ended with a prayer. Afterward several of the inmates came up and shook our hands, thanking us for the entertainment. They weren't the most culturally refined crowd, but they were just as kind and sincere as any group you'll ever meet. I came away with the distinct feeling that every person--even an inmate--has a great potential to do good. The whole experience was an opportunity for me to broaden my perspective just a bit. I hope to have other similar opportunities in the future.


Rita said...

It was surprisingly fun. I'm glad you thought the singing wasn't terrible. I had a little fun but was mostly glad it was over. You did a great job.

Beverly said...

What an amazing experience. I'm glad I missed it (by that I mean I'm glad I wasn't part of your audience).

Scott said...

Wonderful! Reminds me of when Beverly and I visited a member of my ward who was in the women's prison. Pretty weird.