Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom chronicles his development as a writer during his years behind bars for a carjacking he committed at sixteen. Betts’ memoir pulls readers into the cells of the prisons that housed him, places where, in Betts’ words, “I have lived things I will not recover from” (176), but also where he observes that he “found creativity” (63). The knowledge that Betts discovered his voice behind bars prompts a troublesome question: Would he have found it elsewhere? Whether he would have become a writer outside of prison remains unclear. There is however, certainty in this: As a man who became a writer in prison, his writing and incarceration are inextricably linked. Betts’ testament to that, his memoir, tells not only the story of his prison sentence but also the story of the words of others coming to shape his own story and leading him to find his voice as a poet. For all that he shows his readers of prison, Betts’ memoir is ultimately more about the transformative power of art.

In the chapter “Joseph’s Hand,” Betts meditates on the unconventional drawing style of another inmate, a young man whose pen scratches lead Betts to see art in a new way:

I went to prison and found creativity I’d never thought to search for on the streets. I had been there for a few months and ran into Joseph, drawing in a way that broke down all of my ideas of what a picture should look like and what it should do. (63)

Joseph’s drawing was a revelation to Betts, what he describes as a “symbol for the idea that art can translate, subconsciously and consciously, your world into your images” (64).

Later, Betts finds his own path as an artist after someone slips a copy of Dudley Randall’s anthology The Black Poets under his cell door. As he reads Randall’s book in solitary confinement, he discovers that his desperation and isolation enable him to see the words on the page as he has never seen them before. In his own words, “[s]olitary confinement gave me a gift I could have gotten nowhere else: the opportunity to start looking for the sense behind the words” (165). For Betts, The Black Poets serves both as a groundbreaking influence and a motif in A Question of Freedom. The first sentence of the memoir alludes to Etheridge Knight’s For Freckled-Faced Gerald”—a poem Betts first encounters in Randall’s anthology—paraphrasing its lines, “sixteen years hadn’t even done / a good job on his voice” (6-7). And lines from Knight’s poem also serve as the epigraph for the second part of the memoir.

Near the end of A Question of Freedom, Betts reflects on The Black Poets as he recalls receiving a response to a letter that he had written to the poet Tony Hoagland:

When I’d gotten my first book of poems, The Black Poets by Dudley Randall, I was a seventeen-year-old kid in a solitary confinement cell wondering if he was going to survive prison. By the time Mr. Hoagland wrote me, I was a few years away from release and still standing. (217)

Readers unfamiliar with The Black Poets cannot see initially how importantly that volume of poetry figures in the pages of Betts’ memoir, but slowly its significance becomes clear, just as the scratches of Joseph’s pen slowly—and seemingly miraculously—become a hand. The lines of Betts’ memoir serve as testament not only to his survival but also to the troubling truth that prison, for all of its harrowing experiences, gave Betts a writing life, endowing him with gift for “[w]eaving prison’s hurt into poetry” (165).

Would Betts have become a writer without the creativity that he discovered in prison and the way of reading that he found in solitary confinement?  Betts’ memoir yields no clear answer to that question, nor does it offer a definitive answer to why he made the mistake—the moment of aberrant behavior—that led to more than eight years behind bars. Prison, as Betts observes, “blossoms contradictions” (181). The gift he found there, one of  “carving a voice” (123) remains one of those contradictions, one that will likely remain in the minds of readers long after they have followed Betts out of the pages of his memoir to a place where many inmates will never return.

Works Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom. Avery, 2009.

Knight, Etheridge. “For Freckled-Faced Gerald.” The Black Poets. Ed. Dudley Randall. Bantam, 1971. p. 205.

 

Laurie Jameson (Jill Roberts) and Nancy Gordon (Jane Lucas) / Ashley Potter Photography

In Nancy Gordon’s first scene in Third, she sits on a park bench outside the college bookstore and tells her friend and colleague Laurie Jameson how a boy she dated her freshman year taught her that Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” scans exactly to “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Nancy begins to sing the lines and Laurie joins in. Singing heartily, so caught up in the fun of it, Laurie doesn’t notice at first that Nancy has stopped singing. She can’t repeat the line “And miles to go before I sleep,” because she doesn’t know whether she has miles to go. Soon she will undergo a bone marrow transplant.

The early drafts of Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, didn’t include Nancy. Three years ago as I prepared to play her, I learned  that when Wasserstein added her as a friend for Laurie, she was adding an autobiographical character, a cancer survivor who would live on after Wasserstein died,  just three months after Third opened in New York in October 2005.

7/8 gone for "Third"

7/8 gone for “Third”

Whenever the prospect of playing Nancy frightened me–which it did, often–I reminded myself of Wasserstein’s courage and how creating Nancy sustained her as her health declined. What an honor and a privilege it was to tread the boards in Nancy’s shoes.

As I reflect on Foothills Performing Arts’ production of Third, on the third anniversary of its opening, I remain grateful for director Mark Shell’s artistic vision and faith in me, and for the stellar cast and crew: Jill Roberts, Justin Thomas, Carla Robinson, David Kerley, Dustin Greene, Amber Ellis Biecker, Tony Hendrix, Heather Lee Hendrix, Aleesha Hendrix, Jared Smith, and Josh Wolfe.

 

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

In the first paragraphs of Dwayne Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom (2009), he recounts his ride to the Fairfax County jail after his arrest for carjacking: a “certifiable” crime in Virginia, which meant that then-sixteen-year-old Betts would be treated as an adult under state law. Last Thursday night when Betts took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne, he began by reading those paragraphs, returning to the backseat of that police car, where “[e]verything near enough for me to touch gleamed with the color of violence” (3). After reading from his memoir, Betts turned to his collections of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010) and Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015), alternating his readings with stories of his years in prison and his writing. He expressed his concern that some people cited his memoir as evidence that prison benefited him, because he had finished his high school education behind bars; and since leaving, he had completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, an MFA in Creative Writing at Warren-Wilson, and a law degree at Yale. To see his post-incarceration successes as evidence that his years behind bars benefited him, Betts said, was a misinterpretation. Following his Q&A with the audience, Betts concluded by saying that he’d been desperate and lucky–“but sometimes desperate and lucky works out.”

Among the anecdotes that Betts shared with the audience was one focusing on his answer to a question about one of his poems. A reader asked him why an otherwise innocuous poem ended with an image of crack cocaine. To illustrate why he ended the poem that way, Betts turned to August Wilson’s play Fences, telling the audience how the character Troy tries to explain his adultery to his wife, Rose, by likening his decision to a moment in a baseball game. He’s wrong, Betts said, but it’s the only way Troy knows how to try to communicate what he means. In Betts’ words, “sometimes you only have what you have to explain the world.”

Betts’ memoir isn’t an easy read, showing as it does what a life behind bars can do to the mind and the body. But it also tells the story of the power of the written word, how books sustained Dwayne Betts and led him to become a writer, “carv[ing] a voice out of the air” (123). Though many of my students aren’t drawn to writing or to reading books, I believe that the experience of studying  A Question of Freedom and hearing Betts speak has deepened their understanding of the vital role that reading and writing can play in their lives.

Work Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom.  Avery, 2009.

Thank-you card by Mallory Taylor

Thank-you card by Mallory Taylor

Thank-you card by Kiyah Davender

Thank-you card by Kiyah Davender

When Stephanie Lindsay, who played Karla in the recent LR Playmakers’ production of Wonder of the World, first visited class on February 6, the students had not begun drafting their analyses of the play and opening night was more than a week away. Today when Lindsay returned for a follow-up visit, the students had submitted their revisions of their papers and many had also seen one of the performances of the show. After all of the students projected their analyses-turned-blog posts on the big screen and spoke briefly about the focus of their writing, Lindsay led them in a discussion that traced the journey of the play from page  to stage.

Along with her insightful remarks regarding the actors’ and the director’s roles in bringing the characters to life, Lindsay reflected on the vital opportunity that live theatre offers us in the digital age: the experience of sharing stories together face to face in real time in an increasingly fragmented culture.

thank-you-card-4As Lindsay spoke, my thoughts turned to the readings that I selected for the course, ones that we can see performed on stage or that we can see addressed by the visiting writers who wrote them. In a course titled Critical Thinking and Writing, virtually any texts could serve as our subjects of inquiry. But studying plays produced at Lenoir-Rhyne and books written by the university’s visiting writers creates opportunities for face-to-face, real-time experiences that the study of other texts doesn’t allow.

Thank you, Stephanie Lindsay, for bringing Karla to life, both on the stage and in the classroom, and thank you for your observations on live theatre and stage craft. And thanks also to Kiyah and Mallory for producing cards to express our gratitude.

 

David Lindsay-Abaire’s farce Wonder of the World chronicles Cass Harris’ search for meaning as she embarks on a new life in Niagara after discovering that her husband of seven years, Kip, has harbored a secret sexual perversion. Once she reaches her destination, she finds that life away from Kip is no honeymoon either but a series of encounters with an assortment of eccentrics grappling with their own losses.

For Cass, the loss is one of innocence. No longer innocent of the knowledge of her husband’s bizarre fetish, she ww-script-notesstruggles to come to terms with it. Though Cass chooses to start a new life, she continues to see the world through the lens of the ninth-grade teaching job that she leaves behind (along with Kip), equating her mistake of marriage to a mathematical miscalculation. As she explains to Kip: “Look, I agreed to marry you based on what I knew to be true. Kip equals X. X will make me happy. Everything added up. Seven years later I find out that you’re not X at all, you’re Z. And if you’re Z, then I did the math wrong” (1.1). Ever the math teacher, Cass perceives the world as a series of signs with determinate meaning, a tendency that seems to compound the difficulty of her quest. On the bus to Niagara, where Cass adopts fellow traveler Lois Coleman as her sidekick, Cass continues to think in terms of numbers, measuring her old life as “463 road signs behind me” (1.2). Though she eventually loses track of the signs, she remains focused on her numbered to-do list, which includes becoming a contestant on The Newlywed Game, a show that turns couples’ compatibility into a numbers game.

Unlike Cass, her husband, Kip, does not seek meaning in numbers. When Karla and Glen (partners in marriage as well as private investigation), confide to Lois that Kip has hired them to track down Cass, Glen notes that Kip “[s]tarted to put two and two together” (1.7). For Kip, “started” is the operative term. He is not a numbers man. The proof that he offers of their undying love—including the ring they found, “the sign,” as Kip a calls it (2.1) —is insubstantial evidence in the eyes of Cass. Their sign systems aren’t the same; they speak different languages. For Kip, numbers games are “crass and divisive” (1.2).

When couples counselor Janie, clad in a clown suit, leads Cass and her cohort of misfits through a Newlywed-style ww-draft-1therapy session, Cass says that “[i]t’s not just a game! Things have meaning. Or at least they should” (2.3). Her emphasis on “should” indicates that she has embraced the concept that meaning may be indeterminate. But neither she nor the other characters can leave numbers behind, not altogether. After Captain Mike, Kip’s rival for Cass’ affection, accidentally shoots himself, rather than reflecting on his death, the characters attempt to quantify fears as they quibble over which is number one: being alone, public speaking, or needles (2.3).

Only Karla seems to yield to the idea that answers may elude us. As she observes to Lois: “I don’t even think about my marriage anymore. Why this, why that? I have no idea how it works, and that’s fine by me. It’s like Stonehenge, an unknowable mystery that the world has come to accept” (2.4).

ww-draft-2The final scene on the river leaves the audience, along with Cass and Lois, in a holding pattern. What happens remains unclear. The ambiguity comes at a risk; it may try the patience of audience members who find the play’s farcical humor too ridiculous or contrived, or as New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley wrote “forced rather than organic.” For others, though, the grotesqueness of Cass’ Niagara Land may serve as an apt metaphor for our own absurd political terrain with its crass and divisive stream of fake news and alternative facts. Perhaps asking “[w]hen does the clarity come?” (2.4) and persisting in our quest for it will sustain us, like Cass and Lois, as we find ourselves over a barrel.

Works Cited

Brantley, Ben. “Setting Forth, the Wind in Her Sails.” Review of Wonder of the World, by David Lindsay- Abaire, The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2001, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 18 Jan.  2017.

Lindsay-Abaire, David. Wonder of the World. Dramatists Play Service, 2003.

othello-and-draftSusan Snyder’s “Othello: A Modern Perspective,” considers the various approaches Shakespeare scholars have offered to the question, what’s the source of the tragedy? Is it Iago, the inhuman embodiment of evil? Is it Iago, the human villain? Is it Othello, himself? Or is it the social forces of Venice? Though all of these approaches are valid—and as Snyder observes, “[n]either separately nor in conjunction can they offer anything like ‘the whole truth’” (288)—Iago’s actions as an all-too-human have-not, someone who feels left behind, is the answer that resonates in the minds of many of us now.

Our recent campaign season has spotlighted citizens who, like Iago, believe that they have been passed over, and we have witnessed repeatedly the discrepancy between appearance and reality that Iago masterfully exploits. In the first scene of the play, when Iago recounts Othello’s appointment of Cassio as his lieutenant, he observes that Cassio lacks his experience in the field, noting that “Mere prattle without practice / Is all his soldiership” (1.1.27-28) and “Preferment goes by letter and affection / And not by old gradation” (1.1.38-39).  For Iago, it’s another way of saying the system is rigged.

To set things right for himself, “honest” Iago manipulates not only the gullible Roderigo but everyone else, “show[ing] out a flag and sign of love / Which is indeed but sign” (1.1.173-74). As he betrays Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, even as he publicly conveys the utmost devotion, he also offers the appearance of Desdemona’s handkerchief—first in the hands of Cassio and later in Bianca’s—as the “ocular proof” (3.3.412) of Desdemona’s infidelity.

That ocular proof stokes the jealous rage that leads Othello to murder Desdemona, an irrational act of violence that points to the Moor’s own tragic flaw and indirectly to prevailing social forces. We see Desdemona and Emilia fall victim not only to the husbands who murder them but also to their prescribed roles in Venetian society. Still, if not for Iago, Desdemona and Emilia would live, as would Othello and Roderigo. As Lodovico says to Iago, “This is thy work” (5.2.427).

Iago’s “work,” as Lodovico puts it, is an evil that continues to haunt us, not because it’s inhuman but because it’s all too real. We know the hatred engendered by the have-nots and the ease with which mere appearance can seem to be ocular proof—a problem that’s compounded for us in the digital age, both in politics and in our personal lives. Othello leaves us wondering who our own Iagos may be, not just the trolls wreaking havoc on Twitter for all to see, but also the BFFs—“I am your own forever” (3.4.546)—stroking our egos even as their private messages poison us.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library Edition, Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Snyder, Susan. “Othello: A Modern Perspective.” Folger Shakespeare Library: Othello by William Shakespeare, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon and Schuster, 2009. pp. 287-98.

 

Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Thursday night at Lenoir-Rhyne, Sarah Vowell spoke of herself as a writer who takes her readers on a trip with her. Seeing Vowell interviewed on stage was a similar journey, one that led the audience from her childhood in Montana to her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat Unites States (2015), with digressions along the way on Charlies Angels, the Trail of Tears, Louis Armstrong, The Incredibles, and Paul Gauguin.

When interviewer Mike Collins asked Vowell about her work on This American Life, she spoke of her writing process, noting that although the stories she wrote sounded casual, there wasn’t one from her twelve-year stint on the show (1996-2008) that underwent fewer than sixty-four revisions. Vowell recalled that Ira Glass, producer and host of the show, chided her for her repeated tangents–what she calls shenanigans–reminding her again and again of the need for brevity in radio. Paring her writing for the airwaves taught Vowell that she was better suited to writing books because they gave her room for shenanigans, citing her detour through the Oneida Community in Assassination Vacation.

In response to an audience member’s question about her writing process, Vowell said that it begins while she is travelling. Vowell explained that she takes “voluminous notes” on index cards. Later, when she returns home, she puts the cards on her living room floor and the process of organizing her research begins. The image of Vowell sitting cross-legged in her living room, placing cards on the floor in front of her as if she’s playing Solitaire, reminds me of her earlier remarks about radio, how each of those casual-sounding pieces she wrote was the product of sixty-four or more drafts. The meandering narratives of her books have a casual quality as well, but they’re the product of a highly organized process.

Vowell is one of the featured authors in the Visiting Writers Series as well as the author of this year’s Campus Read, Assassination Vacation. Her interview with WFAE’s Mike Collins was recorded for later broadcast on Charlotte Talks.

Work Cited

Vowell, Sarah. Visiting Writers Series Interview by Mike Collins. 27 Oct. 2016, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.