On Thursday night, a New England nonprofit is hosting a unique fundraiser at Babson College. The centerpiece is a performance featuring ex-convicts who have become actors to raise awareness — and money — for other convicts about to finish their prison sentences.
The actors are taking on roles in "The Castle," a series of autobiographical monologues written and originally performed off-Broadway by four other ex-offenders. At a recent rehearsal, the parts they are preparing to play remind them of their own experiences, and they're willing to share them.
"You can replace anything in life except for time," Mark Gibson reflected.
"Do I want to be the poster child for prison reform? No!" Latanya Jones replied emphatically, adding, "I want to move forward in my life."
"Even though I’ve been out of jail for 10 years now I still get the crooked eye, and they still don’t want to deal with you," Michael Yebba said.
The fact is their true life stories helped win them their roles in Thursday's production.
"It’s my story, and it’s real, and it is what it is, but it’s just pitiful in some senses because it’s just so wasted, all this time just wasted!" Jones said.
Jones was incarcerated for fraud and looks far younger than her hard-lived 50 years.
"Even though I’ve been out of jail for 10 years now I still get the crooked eye, and they still don’t want to deal with you."Michael Yebba
"I think back and it was like, ugh, this is disgusting!" she said. "I feel sometimes like a cat. You know, cats have a litter, and then they leave the litter, they leave the kittens? That’s how nasty it is, that’s how nasty addiction and crime is. You know, I was a mother with three children, who dropped them like a litter."
On this night, Jones and the rest of the cast sit around a long table at the Piano Factory Theatre in Boston’s South End. The producer is here, too. Shira Milikowsky, the artistic director fellow at the American Repertory Theater, is leading the meeting and distributes the scripts.
Jones delivers the words of Vilma, one of the four characters in the piece.
"I began using more than ever, but that didn’t even matter then, because it was the drugs that made me feel good. It made me feel important. Like I was somebody and that everyone wanted to be around me. Like I was finally the star then. Me, I’m the star now."
When she finished, Jones admitted she sees parts of herself in Vilma. It's not a perfect comparison, but there are parallels.
"She had two incarcerations, and I had two incarcerations," Jones said."I just recently been released from federal custody and I served four years (sic). When I left my daughter she was a little 9-year-old girl." Then she pauses, with tears in her eyes, and said, "Now she’s a 14-year-old trying to find her way."
Jones is finding her way, too. She's a busy youth advocate and a novelist. Her emotional connection to the monologues struck producer Karin Trachtenberg, who works for Venturing Out, the non-profit behind the fundraising event. After posting a casting call for “The Castle” in October, Trachtenberg said a long line of accomplished actresses tried out for the part of Vilma.
"But it just didn’t ring true," Trachtenberg said. "It’s just the thing about this piece is you have to 100 percent believe what these actors are saying, that they are these people. You know, Latanya came in and auditioned we was like, ‘Ah! I believe this, I totally believe this!'"
For Trachtenberg, “The Castle” is powerful because it tells harrowing stories about crime, redemption and rehabilitation that she said aren’t often told.
Programming the work for this fundraiser humanizes Venturing Out’s mission to teach incarcerated men and women how to be entrepreneurs when they get out of prison. The organization's course is currently taught in four Massachusetts facilities, including the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston, the Northeastern Correctional Center for men in Concord, the South Middlesex Correctional Center for women in Framingham, and the Middlesex County House of Correction for men in Billerica.
"Some people call them inmates, but I call them students," said Trachtenberg, who volunteers with the program.
"The have to want to take it; they are pre-screened so they have to be really motivated, they must have a G.E.D. and be within nine months of release so it's not theoretical, and they come out with a business plan because they want to support their families. Ninety percent of incarcerated people have children under the age of 18."
"We do change," 42-year-old Mark Gibson said during the rehearsal.
Gibson is a graduate of Venturing Out's in-prison program and today has his own marketing and public relations company. In "The Castle," Gibson is playing the part of Ken.
"Ken was an A-student, and so was I. And he was also arrested for non-violent, drug-related crimes," Gibson said.
Gibson said, all told, he spent 18 months in prison. Now he said he focuses on giving back by mentoring at-risk young people.
Yebba, 37, is playing the part of Cas in the fundraiser.
"I wish I knew of a program like this when I got out of jail," he said.
Yebba got out 10 years ago and said the multiple violent felonies on his record are seen as indelible "black marks" by potential employers. This has made his real, post-prison life extremely tough. But he's forged his own path and works hard as an actor, screenwriter and producer.
"I have five children — and there’s a saying that someone used to say: 'When Christmastime rolls around and your kid wants that Xbox or PlayStation, it takes a real man to go out and work 80 extra hours a week to buy it versus, you know, standing on a corner for a half an hour where you can make it real quick," he said. "And it always rang true to me. I’d rather work."
And he does.
"I mean, I barely sleep anymore," Yebba said.
The one actor here who isn’t an ex-con is 55-year-old Lonnie Farmer. He plays Angel.
"Any sentient being can relate to other people’s pain. And if you’re an actor and you can’t do that, maybe you shouldn’t be acting," Farmer said.
Even though Farmer’s never been an inmate, he’s intimate with the correction system's harsh realities. In his "real life," Farmer’s day job is social worker for the Department of Children and Families.
"Many of the parents with whom I work are ex-offenders, some are current offenders, I have no doubt that some will be future offenders," he said.
Farmer is inspired by the three other actors sitting around the table with him.
According the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67 percent of offenders will be re-arrested within three years of release. The good news is studies show education and employment help keep ex-cons from going back to jail. That’s what Venturing Out, and the people breathing life into this production of “The Castle,” want to see.
“The Castle” is being performed Thursday, Dec. 8, at Babson College as part of Venturing Out’s fundraising event, “From Offender to Entrepreneur.”
This program aired on December 8, 2011.