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UMich Prison Creative Arts Project presents final performance of “With Love, From Inside”

Lyra Wilder, Michigan Daily

More than 30 people gathered inside the Matrix Theatre in Detroit to watch the Dropped Keys Theatre Company perform an original play titled “With Love, From Inside” Friday evening. The performance was the closing night of the company’s 10-show tour, which performed at venues across Southeast and Central Michigan.

Founded by University of Michigan students from the U-M Prison Creative Arts Project, the Dropped Keys Theatre Company aimed to tell the stories of incarcerated people through theater. Over the past nine months, students visited and worked with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated creative artists from Southeast Michigan to find ways to bring their stories to life through performance. 

In a post-show conversation with the audience, Ashley Lucas, professor of theatre and drama, whose students put on the show, said the play came from the desire to provide an outlet for incarcerated people to share their stories beyond prison walls.

“We have great ways at PCAP to bring out the writing and the visual art but we’ve not had a good way to bring performance (to an audience), but the folks inside (prison) are performing as part of the workshops that we do every semester,” Lucas said. “(Incarcerated people) do incredible things that we can’t show to anybody because we can’t film them and we can’t bring you in and we can’t bring them out … This play is our attempt to make them present out here in the world that they cannot enter right now.”

The show focused on a fictional character created by Cozine Welch, a prison reform activist and poet who was formerly incarcerated. Played by U-M alum Sarah Oguntomilade, the character communicated through letters with her incarcerated mother of 35 years. Each letter contained a maxim which was acted out by the ensemble of students and alumni. Each story was reflective of those the students had been told by incarcerated people they visited. 

Recent U-M alum Nathan Goldberg said the process of developing the script involved collaboration with people incarcerated at Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, MI, who provided pieces of advice about life they wanted to share.

“(One inmate) brought out a bunch of these maxims, which became the letters throughout the show and the central mechanism of the show,” Goldberg said. “She went to a bunch of people around Cotton and (asked), is there any advice or anything that you would like to bring out into the world?”

In addition to incarcerated people’s letters and stories, Mary Heinen McPherson, the co-founder of PCAP and a formerly incarcerated person, recounted her lived experiences with the prison system, including poor health care, toxic living conditions and the lack of reentry resources upon her release. During the post-show talk, McPherson told the audience she founded PCAP and worked on the production because she felt the arts were a significant form of expression and resistance.

“When I first started this work 34 years ago, (the public) thought that art in prison is things like drawing little butterflies on envelopes or taking popsicle sticks and making little houses,” McPherson said. “It wasn’t understood that art is a vehicle for change … Art is revolutionary.”

Read the original story at the Michigan Daily.