Today’s guest columnist is Jennifer L. Greer.
Think about the worst thing you have ever done. Does it define you?
No. And it doesn’t define Daoud Boone, a military vet, theatre major in college, aspiring poet/playwright, and an incarcerated Alabama man serving a life sentence — without parole.
In prison, they call it “life without,” Boone tells me, matter-of-factly, talking via an electronic tablet from Limestone Correctional Facility.
“But it doesn’t matter if they tell a man he can’t fly,” he adds. “Because that’s not up to them. It’s his choice.”
Fly? Boone is speaking metaphorically, of course, about freedom, not getting on a jet plane.
Still, I couldn’t imagine how a proud Black man, 39, could feel remotely free after 14 years behind bars in Alabama’s prison system, which has been under federal scrutiny for 50 years and currently faces a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit for cruel and inhumane conditions.
I say that no matter what he did – or didn’t do — to get there.
The Only Way to Be Free
But I see now because I have read Boone’s timely new play, “Men’s Training,” in which he introduces the idea of flying to symbolize all of the potential a person has, any person, if only he/she/they believe in themselves.
“Writing is therapeutic for me, a coping tool, the only way that I can be truly free,” says Boone, adding that he has taken creative writing courses in prison and now writes by hand in a spiral notebook.
Sad, funny, and provocative, his unpublished play will be performed in a stage reading Nov. 29 by a Birmingham Southern College (BSC) class in a course called “Theatre’s Call to Action”. The reading is part of a groundbreaking exhibit, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”, at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) through Dec. 11.
Like other works in “Marking Time,” Boone’s play is significant for its witness to the systemic violence and racism of prison life. But more urgently, “Men’s Training” attests to the vitality of people who choose to grow and thrive there, in spite of a modern carceral state more invested in punishment than rehabilitation.
“’Men’s Training’ is a wonderful, intriguing and sobering journey into the world of incarceration that presents a very real challenge for our culture,” says Alan Litsey, author, playwright and Chair/Professor of Theatre at BSC, who created the “Theatre’s Call to Action” course.
“It dismantles the typical stereotypes of people who are incarcerated. The play looks at how we define who we are from within and survive the cultures of the institution, and the central character models how to overcome life’s obstacles to be the best persons we can be.”
A Choice: Degenerate or Grow?
Boone writes for himself and other men in prison. “We have insane amounts of time in here. We can either be encouraged to degenerate, or grow and change. Most people I know who change do it on their own. The rehab is mostly missing. Sounds crazy, but it’s reality.”
Litsey met Boone like I did, through Pat VanderMeer, of Hoover, who holds book clubs in prisons and helps inmates write newsletters about prison life. Before the pandemic, VanderMeer a retired magazine executive, was volunteering at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, where Boone was being held. “One day, he gave me this manuscript and said ‘Do whatever you want with it,’’’ she recalls.
Impressed with the play, VanderMeer networked with Birmingham’s arts and criminal justice reform community. Eventually, she connected with John Fields, senior director at AEVIA, who saw a place for it in “Marking Time,” and Litsey at BSC, who saw a fit with his service-learning theatre course.
A one-act play with nine short scenes and 32 characters, “Men’s Training” is the story of a young Black man, Trayvon, 18, sentenced to “life without” for a crime committed as a juvenile. He comes of age among a lively group of inmates, full of temptation and wisdom. Like Trayvon, several are named after Black male shooting victims over the past decade, although their characters are unique.
“After the third or fourth shooting of a Black man, I talked about it with the men and decided I had to create a production about what was going on and how we saw it,” recalls Boone. A central theme in the play concerns criminal justice double standards, such as powerful politicians who are “tough on crime,” but ask for leniency for themselves when they run afoul with the law.
Rediscovering Empathy, Humanity
BSC students not only study Boone’s play, they immerse themselves in the topic of mass incarceration in America, which imprisons more people than any other country in the world. This semester they read works like Michelle Alexanders’ “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
For the staging, Gia Warren, a junior majoring in Production & Performance of the Arts, picked one of three co-director jobs, which involved several phone conversations with Boone on how to best represent the play. “We are excited about supporting his work, and we want to honor his vision,” she says, stressing that she and her peers are learners as well as collaborators.
Warren says she was attracted to “Men’s Training” because she thinks it raises critical issues, including a loss of empathy and humanity today. “It’s so simple to put people in a box, take away their identity, and soon, you forget that they are real people. “
This fall, as Alabama politicians prepare to spend billions on expanding, rather than reforming, our state’s broken prison system, I wonder: Can art inform politics?
Yes, because artists ask different questions. Are we a moral society? Should non-violent prisoners, including senior citizens, be forced to die in jail? Is solitary confinement torture? Do juveniles and people with addiction and mental illness really belong behind bars?
So, don’t tell a man like Daoud Boone he can’t fly.
Because he already has.
Jennifer L. Greer is a freelance journalist and a retired university instructor who lives in the Birmingham, AL. area.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham region.. firstname.lastname@example.org.