My Experience Working On AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE

Photograph © T Charles Erickson

I first started working with Travis Russ’ Life Jacket Theatre Company in May 2015, by the New York miracle of answering a Playbill ad. Months later, I had read more about sex offenders than I ever thought I would have cared to know, and conducted phone interviews with sources from sex therapists to forensic psychiatrists to conservative lobbyists.

One week in autumn 2015, when I was in the midst of producing a performance art festival for my day job, I had scheduled several phone interviews to take place in the morning before I would head into the office, squeezing them into whatever free time I could eek out. Two days in a row, I had gotten up early only to have my interview subjects reschedule or stand me up. The third day, after getting to my desk for a 7:30 am phone interview, I received the following email:

Ron is going to be delayed until 8:15 AM this morning. He is working on the streets with the homeless.

It was like a slap in the face. I’d been so wrapped up in my own stress and demands of a busy New York life, which suddenly all felt puny, in comparison. And that was just the beginning.

In October 2015, I went to visit Miracle Village in Pahokee, Florida, to meet the people who would become the subjects of our show, America is Hard to See. My first scheduled appointment in Pahokee was an interview with Chris Dawson, a convicted sex offender who happened to be my age. Although I trusted Travis’ judgement, and knew he wouldn’t put me in an unsafe situation (he had already been there conducting interviews for about two weeks before I came down), the minute the door closed and it was just me and Chris and the voice recorder, things got more real.

But Chris quickly put me at ease; he’s a natural storyteller and he opened up quickly. He’s also accustomed to telling his story, as are most of the residents of Miracle Village, since an important part of their therapy is owning up to what they’ve done. Moreover, Chris’ story is a classic “Romeo and Juliet” case, in which he was apprehended having sex with his underage girlfriend, and her parents brought Chris to court despite their previous knowledge (and perceived approval) of the relationship.

My interview with Chris was the first of many conversations in Pahokee, most of them more challenging. All of us struggled with questions of bias and partiality in developing this play. It’s hard not to become sympathetic towards the residents of Miracle Village once you’ve met them and heard them tell their own stories, seen the hurt in their eyes and heard the regret in their voices. It’s also hard to reconcile the ugly stories of abuse, addiction, hurt, trauma, incest, lust, love, violence, and betrayal with the human beings they belong to.

I am not a religious person, but so much of the salvation that these offenders have found has come through the church. While in Pahokee, almost everyone I met asked me about my faith, and time and again I had to expose myself as the agnostic northerner that I am, tolerant and curious, but in no way believing in the very thing that has provided hope for forgiveness and a better life to an entire community.

In the months following our trip to Florida, I had a couple follow-up interviews over the phone with Chris’ mother, in some of which she became quite emotional, recounting the difficult story of the night of Chris’ arrest and the years of hardship for her family, with him in and out of prison. I would text Chris occasionally for about a year after I met him, and I rang in 2016 with some of the people we had met in Florida — former sex offenders and church folk — who were visiting New York for the holidays.

We all felt the responsibility of doing justice to these people’s stories, who had been so generous in sharing them with us, in creating this work of documentary theater. The line between a professional and personal relationship, artistic license and human empathy, is extremely murky and hard to maintain when the hospitality extended to you makes you feel like you’ve already become part of the Pahokee family.

Staging the premiere of America is Hard to See in 2018, on the heels of all the public outcry against men in positions of power who have wronged women in (and out of) the workplace, I am particularly sensitive to the way in which we present the residents of Miracle Village, and the local community that has found a way to accept them. If I have learned anything from creating this show, it’s that every story has multiple sides and people — perpetrators and victims alike — need to be heard in order to have any chance at healing. Standardized decision-making, in public policy or personal judgment, is ineffective, given the complexity of human interaction. Every story needs to be considered individually for us to have any chance at finding something that looks like justice.

What we all keep coming back to in the telling of the story of Miracle Village is that we will have done our job if the audience has as many questions as we do. Researching this show asked us to take a long, hard look at the darkness of the human psyche. These stories ask us to contemplate fundamental structural tenets of society: justice, family, responsibility, healing, forgiveness, and rehabilitation. I don’t have any more answers today than I did when we started on this journey two and a half years ago. But I have a lot more stories to consider.

America is Hard to See runs January 30-February 24, 2018 at HERE.

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