Most Shared

A theater teacher played 'Hamilton' for a group of inmates. Their reaction was priceless.

These men are prisoners. But in 'Hamilton,' they saw themselves on stage.

A theater teacher played 'Hamilton' for a group of inmates. Their reaction was priceless.

I work with a group of men who aren’t used to seeing themselves in the narrative unless they’re portrayed as villains.

These men are prisoners. They understand that much of America thinks they’re monsters who deserve to be locked in cages. They are the bastard, orphan sons of … every kind of woman you can imagine. They are also beloved sons and husbands and part of close families who come to visit them every week.



Photo by the author, used with permission.

Maybe they understand Alexander’s words in the musical, "Hamilton": “Livin’ without a family since I was a child. My father left, my mother died, I grew up buckwild.” Many of them know all about living impoverished, in squalor, and about fathers who split. A few of them are in college, working on being scholars.

People look at them like they’re stupid. They’re not stupid.

Because our criminal justice system silences these men, I will be so bold as to tell (a little piece of) their story.

We make plays together at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility hidden away behind razor wire and 18-foot-high walls. We rediscover vulnerability and human connection behind faces masked for survival and inside guarded, broken hearts. We perform for the incarcerated population (please, not one more joke about the "captive" audience) and for a few hundred civilian guests.

Right now, we’re two weeks away from this year’s production, which is "Twelfth Night." We’re telling a story about losing a brother, about heartbreak, about discovering what it’s safe to reveal, and what one has to conceal in a strange and possibly dangerous new place. We’re telling a story about not knowing when the joke has gone too far and the consequences of that — a story about wrongful incarceration. We’re telling a story about recovering what one thought was lost forever.

Me and the men in my theater group. Photo by the author, used with permission.

I’ve written before about how theater can teach trust, empathy, compassion, peaceful conflict resolution, deeper cognitive thinking, delayed gratification and how it can create community and understanding.

The men in Rehabilitation Through the Arts have far fewer disciplinary infractions inside the facility and a dramatically lower recidivism rate upon release than the general population.

I often wish I could take the guys to the theater.

You may be able to imagine that a fair number of these men had no access to the arts as children. We make do with production photos and the occasional “adapted for television” viewings.

That is, until the cast of Hamilton beautifully and powerfully performed their opening number from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre for the Grammy ceremony and then performed again at the White House.

The Hamilton Cast at the Grammys. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images.

When Lin-Manuel Miranda freestyled in the Rose Garden with President Obama, I promptly burned the performance onto a DVD and waited for clearance to bring it into the facility.

We watched on video as Miranda performed a piece from his "concept album" at the 2009 White House Poetry Jam, and then we talked about how that audience received his work.

We talked about what happens when people laugh and you’re serious, about the decision to stand one’s ground and follow one’s purpose, which is a hot topic in our rehearsal room as we get closer to sharing our months of work with the population of the prison.

One of the men observed, “He gets more confident as he goes.” Some of the men worry the population won’t understand Shakespeare; some worry they will laugh at the serious parts. One of the elders in our circle said, “We have to tell the story.”

We watched a true Broadway show in the big house.

Well, four minutes of one anyway, in the form of the Grammy performance of “Hamilton” from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Heads nodded to the beat; some of the men snapped along. “Can we watch it again?” We could. We did.

We talked about how "Hamilton" is performed on a bare stage, just like we’ll perform "Twelfth Night."

“No one laughed when he said his name this time.” We talked about how Miranda uses language, leverages rhetoric to find each character’s voice, just as Shakespeare did. We talked about working for six years on something you believe in, and we speculated about the long, uncertain nights he might have had somewhere in the middle of year three or year four.

These men know more than the rest of us can imagine about long, uncertain nights in the middle of a very long bid to survive.

Opening night at Hamilton. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

We watched the cast perform “My Shot” at the White House. We whooped. We joyfully beheld the son of Puerto Rican parents and the first African-American president freestyle in the Rose Garden. We cheered. (One or two of us might have teared up, but we don’t need to discuss that.)

These gorgeous, thoughtful, wounded men rarely see themselves represented in the world.

As they fight to become the men they want to be, they still mostly see themselves in the narrative as junkies, dealers, thugs, or the latest black man brutally gunned down in the streets by the police. According to an Opportunity Agenda study, “negative mass media portrayals were strongly linked with lower life expectations among black men.”

"Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?"

But, in the midst of our shared creative endeavor, they saw themselves smack in the center of the narrative of creation, possibility, pursuit, and achievement.

Representation unabashedly made me weep as I watched a few of the men lean in.

Representation matters. Representation is beautiful.

And I am not willing to wait for it.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash
True

This story was originally shared on Capital One.

Inside the walls of her kitchen at her childhood home in Guatemala, Evelyn Klohr, the founder of a Washington, D.C.-area bakery called Kakeshionista, was taught a lesson that remains central to her business operations today.

"Baking cakes gave me the confidence to believe in my own brand and now I put my heart into giving my customers something they'll enjoy eating," Klohr said.

While driven to launch her own baking business, pursuing a dream in the culinary arts was economically challenging for Klohr. In the United States, culinary schools can open doors to future careers, but the cost of entry can be upwards of $36,000 a year.

Through a friend, Klohr learned about La Cocina VA, a nonprofit dedicated to providing job training and entrepreneurship development services at a training facility in the Washington, D.C-area.

La Cocina VA's, which translates to "the kitchen" in Spanish, offers its Bilingual Culinary Training program to prepare low-and moderate-income individuals from diverse backgrounds to launch careers in the food industry.

That program gave Klohr the ability to fully immerse herself in the baking industry within a professional kitchen facility and receive training in an array of subjects including culinary skills, food safety, career development and English language classes.

Keep Reading Show less

Image is a representation of the grandfather, not the anonymous subject of the story.

Eight years a go, a grandfather in Michigan wrote a powerful letter to his daughter after she kicked out her son out of the house for being gay. It's so perfectly written that it crops up on social media every so often.

The letter is beautiful because it's written by a man who may not be with the times, but his heart is in the right place.

It first appeared on the Facebook page FCKH8 and a representative told Gawker that the letter was given to them by Chad, the 16-year-old boy referenced in the letter.

Keep Reading Show less
True

When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."