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Cellist and singer-songwriter Anna Fritz and actor Paul Susi performed a play called An Iliad in prisons across Oregon in 2018. Even though this project was exhausting and difficult in many ways, they found the experience to be deeply satisfying in a way they didn’t expect. The project was sponsored by Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative.

See this article from The Oregonian for more information and a short video of the performance.

I think that doing work like this could easily get spun as doing a service. And it is. It’s bringing something beautiful and meaningful to people who are denied beauty and meaningful connection in their day-to-day lives. But what I’m struck by is how deeply I was fed by the experience.

Anna Fritz
Anna Fritz and Paul Susi

Even as we finish up volume one of More Devotedly, volume two is already taking shape. We’ve now confirmed that we’ll be presenting our second live event as part of the Portland, OR Fertile Ground Festival on February 1st and 2nd. Join our mailing list to get the details as they’re released.

We’ll be performing three pieces, with poet and performer Lara Messersmith-Glavin, dancer and choreographer Stephanie McCullough, and Joe Kye on violin, who you met on episode two. This show will offer a candid emotional perspective—the perspective we usually don’t take seriously, the perspective we never trust when things get tough—on the theme of volume two, climate change.

Introduction

In Volume One of More Devotedly, we’re thinking about this question—who belongs here?

When I lived in New York City from 2010 to 2013, I took a part-time job tutoring kids who were struggling in school. All of my students lived fairly close to where I lived, around 190th street in The Bronx, in a mostly black and latino neighborhood.

I took short bus rides up and down Webster Avenue to get to their apartment buildings, and when I got there I did my best to teach them math and reading. Entering into these spaces, the homes of mostly poor, mostly immigrant families of color—was like a journey into a different universe for me. As a white person from the suburbs of Portland, OR, my entire experience of New York was defined by culture shock. This job was a heightened, concentrated dose, and it sometimes left me feeling queasy and anxious. Though I was there to do something positive, I didn’t feel at all up to the task. I didn’t belong, even my stomach knew it.

Two of my students were twin siblings who lived in a public housing complex. One of them seemed to have an undiagnosed learning disability. I spent time with this first grader just counting and recognizing numbers. Her brother just seemed bored. Timing him with a stopwatch as he did his worksheets usually got him motivated. He used to make cartoonish “fast noises” with his mouth as he did the problems. 

But I rarely felt uncomfortable inside the apartments of my students. It was the coming and going that was hard. One day, as I took an elevator down from the twin’s floor in the public housing building, a man who was riding down with his son warned me not to step in the puddle of urine on the floor. Because this building was at least 20 stories tall, the elevators were essential. Everyone had to use them every day, and I couldn’t understand why someone would do this. But to this man and his son, the piss on the floor was just a fact of life. I remember thinking how glad I was to be leaving the building. At the same time, I was sorry those twins had to stay.

In a minute, you’ll hear my conversation with cellist and composer Anna Fritz and actor Paul Susi. They performed a play based on Homer’s ancient epic called An Iliad in prisons across Oregon in 2018. They’re remounting the play for another tour of performances right now in the fall of 2019 which you can learn more about at moredevotedly.com.

Their audiences, men and women who slept every night in places worse than the housing projects in The Bronx, taught them something similar to what I learned about these kids and their families—that despite some really tough circumstances and deep systemic disadvantages, these were smart, kind people who have the same needs and the same dreams as everyone else. Just like everyone else, they deserve to have a safe place to live, equal opportunity to education and dignified work, and to have experiences with the arts.

For people who don’t know it, The Bronx and places like it have reputations as a terrible places to live. When President Trump tweeted about Baltimore as a “disgusting” place, he reinforced that stereotype. Yes, there are some serious problems there, but on the whole, The Bronx is an amazingly diverse and industrious place. I met so many incredible people there who taught me a lot about what it means to do good work, raise a family, and create vibrant communities. 

Most people think the same about prisons, that they’re terrible places to be, hell on earth with bars and chains. And in a lot of ways, yes, that’s true. It would be foolish and disrespectful to say otherwise. But, even if the living conditions in a place are bad, the people who live there are not worthless. Of all the things I’ve learned through these experiences, this has been the most important. 

If we allow negative stereotypes about a place to form our opinions about the people who live there, it makes it easier to ignore the real problems that we could solve with a good faith legislative process. Artists have the power to spread positive ideas. Let’s elevate artists who are doing that work.

One last thing. Through the whole interview, we never once talked about the crimes that these inmates may or may not have been guilty of. We also didn’t really discuss the injustices that are built into the American justice system. We began with a more basic assumption—that no matter what they may have done, or what circumstances pushed them towards those acts and the punishments they received—they still belong. They are still human beings who deserve to experience the arts, and they can be trusted to deal with both the positive and negative emotions that the arts can set free. They still belong, and they are still worthy of redemption.

Transcript

Due to unfortunate technical problems, we’re unable to post a transcript of this episode’s interview at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Credits

This episode was produced by Douglas Detrick. Music was composed and performed by Douglas Detrick.

Ticking stopwatch sound was created by SuzanneSoundCreations and used by permission under the Creative Commons Attribution license.

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