It is the summer of 2015 and, at a rehearsal space in New York City, 18 young men are standing in a circle playing games that will be familiar to any theater geek. A round of “Zip, Zap, Zop,” a little “Keep it Moving.” They look like an overgrown drama club, some of them a little too old for high school. Some look a bit apprehensive; others catch on right away.
They quickly graduate from these icebreakers and start writing the play they’ll be staging, off-Broadway, in seven weeks time. The personal stories they sketch out now will be the foundation of their play. A title and theme eventually emerge: “Deeper Than Skin.” The show includes a sequence in which all the men riff on what they wish they could say to the police:
“Dear Cops: I can’t trust you when I hear the lives of many being killed by your hands.”
“I can’t trust you in blue. I don’t really care what you say and do, I can’t trust you. Your badge is just makeup. It comes off at the end of the day.”
“Hey justice system, I can’t trust you when I am stopped and frisked with no probable cause.”
All of these guys are here for the same reason: They have been involved in the justice system. They are part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stargate Theatre Company, a workplace-readiness program for court-involved youth. The 20 or so paid participants have just under two months to write and stage an original work of theater which they perform at the summer’s end for an audience of family, friends, and the public.
The 2015 session is captured in a documentary, Stargate Theatre: A Defining Act, which premiered last month and can be watched in full here. The film sets up its story with some stark data: Black youth are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. Not every guy in Stargate has been incarcerated — some were, at Rikers Island and elsewhere; others had their cases adjudicated — but what they share, Evan Elkin, a youth justice policy expert who is also Stargate’s co-founder and senior project adviser, says in the film, is “an inherent desire to move their lives forward and a realization that their surroundings don’t define them.”
“We never ask them what their offense or what they did to become court-involved,” Elkin goes on. “We don’t want to know that. We want to know them from our experience with them in the room as young actors and writers, period.”
“They each have their own stories,” David Shookhoff, MTC director of education, said by phone. “These are young people who have never been given the opportunity to voice what is in their hearts and on their minds. They haven’t been given the opportunity to say to this world: This is who I am. And that’s what theater can do. It gives them the opportunity to express themselves… to process [what they’ve been through] and to give it form, so they can share what they’re feeling in a public forum, and one that transcends the individual experience… When you embody it on stage, it connects you with the whole realm of human experience.”
‘They’re teenagers. Maybe the best way to characterize them, vis-à-vis their peers, is: They’re the same, only more so.’
Manhattan Theatre Club Education was established in 1989. “Everything we do involves the students we work with learning how to see theater, how to look at a play, or how to create a play,” Shookhoff said. “And from very early on, one of the populations that we embraced as part of our umbrella of folks we felt it was important to work with were at-risk and incarcerated youth.”
Since the early 1990s, MTC has offered residencies for students in the “alternative” high school system within the New York City public schools to reach “marginalized” young people: “former dropouts, students who are otherwise failing, including court-involved youth, and young people who are incarcerated on Rikers Island,” Shookhoff said.
“Stargate was an effort to reach the same population outside of school time, as a kind of support and re-entry for young people who had a history of court involvement as they re-entered the community and needed to develop both positive creative empowerment and provide them with workforce skills as they went about the process of reintegrating with their communities,” Shookhoff said. Though when Stargate launched in 2013 it was a collaboration between MTC and the Vera Institute of Justice, for the past two summers “we’ve been flying solo,” Shookhoff said, and MTC has always been “the sole funders of the project.”
With a residency in places like Rikers Island, “we’re in a classroom and our teaching artists are collaborating with a classroom teacher,” Shookhoff explained. With Stargate, the participants, young men between 16 and 20 years old, come to MTC’s rehearsal studio on West 43rd Street. This summer’s crop will earn $10 an hour, though they are docked for lateness in 15 minute increments. Because at Stargate, the young men are treated as employees, not students. Paying them minimum wage is “a keystone” of the project, Shookhoff said. “We want them to understand what it is to have a job.”
Two artistic directors, Judy Tate and Stephen DiMenna, and a licensed clinical social worker, Paul Gutkowski, supervise the program. Recruitment for the seven-week program takes place during the spring and the session starts in earnest in July. The company meets 12 hours a week, Monday through Friday, with the time commitment ramping up as the premiere approaches. The first half of the program focuses on writing; the latter, as the script takes shape, on staging. The Stargate participants are taken to at least one play.
Last summer, they saw Melissa Ross’ Of Good Stock, which “was arguably at first blush an odd choice, because it was about a very WASPy family in New England, a dysfunctional family,” said Shookhoff. “But it was a play about legacy, which the young men quickly understood. So even though it didn’t literally have anything to do with their lives in terms of the social classes depicted, they got the idea that what’s passed down from past generations affects them and the future.”
Tate, a four-time Emmy Award winning writer behind scripts for Another World, As the World Turns, and Days of Our Lives, has been a teaching artist with MTC since the early 1990s. “One of the first assignments that I was given was to go into Rikers Island to work with two other teaching artists in a playwriting residency,” she said by phone. “So I’ve got 23 years of experience working with kids in incarcerated facilities or non-secure or secure facilities.”
“I wasn’t nervous about going into Rikers,” she said. “I wasn’t nervous about working with young black and Latino boys. The fact that there were almost no white people there was very disconcerting, because you know white people commit crimes. But I think one the images that stayed with me from my very first day at Rikers was a very large, built kid. He was in the corner, in the library where we worked, sleeping with his thumb in his mouth in a semi-fetal position. He’s a child. And that is what I remind myself: These are children that we are incarcerating.”
Tate believes that “the skills that we use as theater professionals are uniquely transferable to what people call ‘life skills.’ It includes being reflective, it includes using language to promote your ideas, it includes putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, which is empathy. Those are necessary skills to create theater, and those are also necessarily skills to be a citizen and a responsible member of society.”
In working with a group of people who, in some cases, spent the lion’s share of their adolescence not really getting to have an adolescence, Shookhoff said, some of the biggest challenges are practical. “That you need to show up on time, be ready, be willing and able to cooperate, subordinate yourself to the needs of the group, those are skills these guys don’t necessarily have… They are people who, in extreme cases, have been deprived of their adolescence and didn’t have the chance to mature normally, the way middle class young people get. And they’re teenagers. Maybe the best way to characterize them, vis a vis their peers, is: They’re the same only more so.”
‘They’ve been called a criminal or a thug many times. What do they actually believe about themselves?’
Experience is not a prerequisite, Shookhoff said: “We’re screening for interest, commitment, a sense of their willingness to cooperate to take a chance.” But some participants join the program with a background in theater, and a handful have returned to Stargate multiple summers in a row.
Denzel Alexander-White talked by phone about his affinity for theater — he was in Glengarry Glen Ross in high school, plus a few church shows — but “the first day [at Stargate], I didn’t know what to expect.” He arrived for Stargate’s inaugural year, and “we still didn’t have an idea of what it would be like, exactly… until we got there. We were filling out prompts and stuff like that, doing acting games. It was a combination of literature and acting.”
Alexander-White had never tried playwriting before, though “I usually write a lot of poetry and stuff like that. I sometimes do a little rapping; I’m into music.” But it didn’t take long before the process at Stargate “felt easy… When I got arrested, it just made it easier to write because there’s so much to write about. And all the [police] killings, so much going on. There were just so many things that you could talk about last year. So it was hard to run out of creativity, especially when you’re bouncing off of other people’s experiences, and they tell you their stories.”
The theme that emerged in his first year, 2014, was “weathering the storm,” Alexander-White said. “We were all getting out of mad problems with the law and stuff like that. So how do we handle the problems that we’re going through?” Alexander-White said that he had “just gotten arrested for a brawl, somebody had lied and said that we tried to rob them, so the police arrested us [for] something we didn’t do, it was a complete lie… And I was going to school, trying to make sure I could graduate on time.”
The most moving scene, Alexander-White said, was a set in a cemetery. He read a poem “about the death of a lot of the well-known black victims” of violence from that year. “A lot of people told me, personally, they saw people crying in the crowd. A lot of people were getting emotional over that scene. That to me means that a lot of people really felt what I was saying, and my point got across. There was no confusion about what I was saying. Everybody could relate to it.”
“It was this scene inside of the play where we said these people’s names and we got shot,” said Leviticus Mitchell, a 2015 Stargate alum, by phone. “And the reaction from us as well as the crowd, it was a very emotional time because it took everybody back to those moments. It felt to them like they were living it right then. We had chalk lines on our bodies. That was a really emotional part, right there. That broke the whole audience down. Everybody was crying.”
Mitchell wants to be an actor now, but at the time he auditioned for Stargate, he had zero theater experience. He’d been incarcerated when he was 14 years old and released five years later; he had never tried to write about that time in his life before coming to the theater program. What he loved most about it was the camaraderie, he said by phone: “I loved that people who know nothing about each other, those emotions still surface… I just love the way people react to what I do and what I’m passionate about.”
“One of the things that we hope happens is to challenge some of the self-perceptions and assumptions that society makes about them and that they’ve internalized, and that they’ve made about themselves, and who they are,” Elkin says in the film. “Are they actually a criminal? They’ve been called a criminal or a thug many times. What do they actually believe about themselves?”
‘We felt that there was an honesty and a focus that could be achieved by keeping the group all male.’
Why no women in the program? Shookhoff said they have hopes to expand — Stargate is only in its third year, after all — and that these first summers “have been, in a way, a pilot, a research and development effort.” Tate, for her part, doesn’t think the program should be coed, though she would like to see a program for women in addition to the one for men. “At first, I argued, ‘why not? We should make it coed.’ And then, as we went back and forth and thought about the kinds of things I’d be asking them to write, and the fact that they’re adolescents, and most of them are heterosexual, although certainly not all, we felt that there was an honesty and a focus that could be achieved by keeping the group all male. Plus, there are more people in prison that are guys and the need is greater.”
Tate worked in the Rose M. Singer women’s section of Rikers and remembers “that a lot of what these women have to talk about is about guys who they’ve done stuff for and landed them in jail, and if they’re in a room with guys, they’re not going to be as free to talk about the particular things — becoming a woman, being a woman — if guys are around. And guys have to talk about becoming a man, in this society, in this country, in this time, that they’re not going to be as open about if there are women in the room, too.”
For what it’s worth, “I think it’s a very feminist thing to say: To acknowledge that men and women can be distracted in their hormonal adolescence by the opposite sex,” Tate said. “And while we’re not excluding women, we’re creating an environment for guys who have a need at this time, while at the same time, raising money to do a very similar thing that will allow women to have the exact same kind of experience, with their own unique point of view.”
‘There’s been progress in the conversation, I don’t know that there’s been progress in the actual fact of how many black and Latino people are incarcerated.’
I asked Shookhoff and Tate if they think there is a growing public consciousness around youth incarceration — a rising sense of outrage and, along with it, empathy toward young men who have been court-involved. As people who have been working with this population for 25 years, do they think that change is significant? Have they noticed a change in how other people in their lives react to this kind of work?
“I think attitudes are evolving, both within the field of youth justice as well as, as you’re suggesting, in the general population,” Shookhoff said. “But evolution is a slow process… It’s being increasingly recognized both within the field and around it that the kind of intervention Stargate represents is much more effective than locking them up and throwing away the key. Frankly, it’s a lot more expensive to do that than find these alternative programs and interventions. So it’s cost-effective as well.”
That said, he went on, “old attitudes die hard, and you will find people… who take exception to that position. ‘Those guys need to be taught a lesson, they have to pay a debt to society.’”
“I think it’s equally accurate to say, in many cases, [these are] people who have been failed by the system,” Shookhoff added. “We certainly don’t want to suggest that these young people are not, in some way, responsible for their actions, but we also have to recognize that they’ve been given a bad break through no fault of their own. They’ve grown up in poverty, been deprived of certain options, which led them to make mistakes.”
“Yes, I think that there are movements and there is more conversation about mass incarceration, the unequal dispensing of justice,” Tate said. Still, “I don’t know that there’s been progress in the actual fact of how many black and Latino people are incarcerated. But I certainly hear a difference… in people’s curiosity when they ask me [about this work]. Maybe 15, 20 years ago, people would say, ‘Why do you do that?’ Today people are more inclined to go, ‘That’s great, tell me more.’”