Review of “IN|PRISM: Boxed In & Blacked Out in America” by Brent Buell (November 23, 2014)

Last night Janice and I experienced a mighty work in progress, “IN|PRISM: Boxed In & Blacked Out in America.” It is a play in development by Truthworker Theatre Company, founded by Samara Gaev. People who know me know that when it comes to theater about prison, I am a harsh critic. The subject matters to me intensely, and I do not want anything presented that soothes the public, allows people complaisantly to imagine “those people” are being taken care of as they should be; nor do I want anything that promotes the idea of people behind bars as “animals” or less than human. “IN|PRISM” does neither. It shattered me with its truth and sincere portrayal of one man’s journey from foster-care to life on San Quentin’s Death Row. Before I say more, I want you to know this: the play is written and performed by high-school students! You read that right. It is written and performed by high-school students, and yet it achieves a level of sincerity, sophistication and power rarely achieved in any theatre anywhere.

According to the company, “’IN|PRISM’” examines the impacts and practices of solitary confinement in US prisons, tracing one man’s remarkable capacity for liberation within the walls of death row. We have the unique and humbling opportunity to be working directly with Jarvis Jay Masters, an innocent man on death row, who has been incarcerated since the age of 19 in San Quentin Prison and institutionalized since he was a young boy.” Arising from a friend’s recommendation, Samara Gaev began a correspondence with Masters and eventually widened that correspondence and collaboration with the young people in her Truthworker Theatre Company. For a solid year, the actors of the company corresponded with, talked on the telephone with and bonded with Mr. Masters—all from his cell on California’s death row. Through the process, they not only created a masterful piece of theater, they profoundly changed their lives and the life of Mr. Masters.

Jarvis Jay Masters is the author of two books, “Finding Freedom” and “That Bird Has My Wings.” The actors in the company studied both books in addition to their personal research, and brought aspects of both to life on stage.

I won’t attempt to detail the story—in a way it is an all-too-familiar story—of life in poor America. But I will tell you this: through original poetry, heart-grabbing rhythms (feet, hands, lips, even tongues are used for rhythmic effect), original music and songs, lightning-pace raps performed in unison by two or more people, and some of the most sincere, raw, flawless acting I have seen in a long time, these young people immerse the audience in the devastating, sometimes comic, always emotional world of incarceration. How they did it, I do not know. My enormous respect goes to artistic director Samara Gaev, graphic and lighting designer Alixa Garcia and company in this remarkable vision realized.

The ages of the company members ranges from 15 to 21. I had to check my program multiple times to believe that this was possible as the maturity of the performances and the grasp of the material so transcended a sense of “young.” The members of this company deserve to be named and saluted individually, and while I cannot detail the merits of each performance, I can tell you the names of these extremely talented and dedicated young people: Kayla Brathwaite, Johari Farrar, James Forza, Ricky Matos, Enlil McRae, Leah Mohammed, Zafar Mohammed, Rebecca Oliver, Deseree “Desi” Ramos, Nethaneel “Ethan Black” Romero, Destiny “Kitty Bites” Sorrentini, Carnell Kieth Steward, Jr. and Amari Tims.

Following the performance there was a question and answer forum with Samara Gaev and the cast. I have been to a lot of talkbacks in theater—frequently awkward and manufactured and predictable—but this talkback had an audience literally jumping out of their seats to ask questions and comment on the emotional experience they just had. In answering questions and commenting on the development of the play, cast members spoke about relatives who are incarcerated, the pain of prison visits and even the ways working on this play has transformed relationships within their families. Okay, call me what you like, but I was choked up by the play and these precise young actors and their heartfelt outpourings (yes, there were tears shed) during the talkback and later as we were able to greet them.

Now for your part.  Last night was the third and final performance of this play—an evening of theater which must be continued on other stages on many more nights. According to the program, “Truthworker Theatre Company is a social justice based, hip-hop theatre company for high school & college aged youth in Brooklyn, NY.  We are intent upon providing free programming and professional stipends for young visionaries & performers to receive rigorous training. TTC is a safe space for young people to be the subjects, not the objects of their stories-narrating their own experiences and unique perspectives in ways that unpack, problematize, and shift the dominant, often stereotypical narratives in mainstream media. Using theatre and media to examine history and learn about models for creating social change, we call upon language and critical thinking skills as tools to develop solution driven citizens of the world.”

This theatrical work and this groundbreaking program must move forward. The company is asking for contributions to continue programming for the 2014-15 year. You can support the work directly by going to, arrange bookings by writing to, and for fellow producers with ideas about moving this company forward, please inbox me or write to me at

Further information about Jarvis Jay Masers is available at

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