Cornell Alston and Kaneza Schaal’s Performance Considers How We Rebuild Dreaming After Trauma

How do we rebuild dreaming after trauma? In their Creative Capital Project JACK &, Cornell Alston and Kaneza Schaal consider reentry to society after prison, focusing not on the time one serves, but the measure of ones dreaming that is given to the state. After a sold-out run of performances at BAM’s Next Wave Festival last year, the artists return with a theatrical show and companion installation at New York Live Arts, April 17-20 and 24-27.

We spoke to Kaneza Schaal and Cornell Alston about the project and its premiere at New York Live Arts.

Alex—Tell me about JACK &.

Kaneza—JACK & is a piece that’s grown out of ongoing artistic conversations between Cornell and myself thinking about reentry to society after prison. The piece considers not the time one has served, but the measure of dreaming that has been given to the state. Cornell and I first started collaborating together on a performance called Go Forth and we actually, ultimately, didn’t get to premiere that piece together. A lot of the complications came up around that having to deal with the New York City Parole Board. We asked ourselves how do we move past the language of metrics, demographics, and measures of success, that come up when we talk about prison reform, or mass incarceration, and how do we talk about internal life and dreaming?

Alex—It’s a performance, right?

Kaneza—As soon as we tell people that the piece deals with reentry into society after prison, there’s immediately a kind of aesthetic imagination that gets masked onto the piece. People assume it’s going to be a personal narrative reportage drama with like a guy on a stool telling you about the hard knocks of life. Our piece is in many ways a portrait of a time traveler, it involves four primary performers. Cornell stars in the piece as “Jack.” We have “Jill” played by Stacy Robinson, and “the friend” played by Modesto Jiménez. Also on stage is our sound designer, Rucyl Mills. The first section of the piece is a monologue directed to the audience that Cornell performs. The second section is a kind of exploded baking fiasco sitcom duet between “Jack” and “Jill.” The third section is primarily movement and sound, it’s a reconstituted cotillion ball, thinking about ceremonial entrance into society.

Alex—I haven’t seen the piece, but I’ve read a lot about it, and every time I read a new article about it, I learn about a new element in the show, like the cake bake-off. I wonder how people would approach the work if they didn’t know anything about it?

Cornell Alston—The monologue speaks to a lot of issues. If you have never been to prison, a person during the monologue would be able to associate myself, prison, and the bigger ideas I am bringing up. Between the second and the third section, there is more about reentry to society. It may be blurred to some folks, but it’s all there.

Kaneza—We’ve made this creative feast, and in the performance we speak so many different cultural languages, experiential languages, aesthetic languages, historical languages. Everybody is invited to the piece, and we have centralized or prioritized certain viewership, certain experiential knowledge. It has been very meaningful to hear audiences close to the material reflect the poetry back to us so keenly.

In every city we travel to, we have made connections with the local reentry community and extended invitations to folks to see the show. It’s been very important to us to gather audiences who would not otherwise end up in the same room, or acknowledge each other’s presence if they did end up in the same room. That is part of what renders the piece visible. What renders it to exist is to have audiences that speak all these languages, and collectively that’s where the legibility happens.

Alex—You mentioned people’s expectations of what a performance looks like that’s about reentry after prison. People bring their own prejudices to it, I’m sure.

Kaneza—Yeah, there’s still this kind of divide between social practice and creative practice. I believe that great storytelling requires speaking many languages, and the greatest tool of an ensemble is the culture of a group. To me, demographic diversity and formal diversity are inseparable. So, the social justice impulse in the work is an impulse towards artistic excellence.

Alex—Can you tell me more about the work you’re doing with the reentry community in each city?

Cornell—I was part of an organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA). I got involved with them while I was inside the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. RTA was a theater and arts program that focused on dance and visual arts. It was started by a group of inmates and Catherine Balkins, who had been in the business world with her husband for a long time. She came into Sing Sing as a guest with her husband who was a volunteer teaching college.

I got involved with RTA at Sing Sing. I did theater with them for, while I was inside, close to twenty years. RTA uses arts as a vehicle to teach life and coping skills. Upon my release, I had the idea of starting a program with the same concept, but for people on the outside, using theater to teach life and coping skills for at-risk youth. We launched a program called YEA, Youth Empowerment through the Arts in Long Island City at Ravenswood Community Center. Our group was called Our Children, made up of a group of children who had incarcerated mothers. Working with former RTA members, alumni on the outside, we started programs for people no longer in prison. That was part of the reentry part that I got involved in.

The arts can play an important part in these kids’ successful reentry. One of the goals is not just to have these kids home, but to keep them home, and to change some mindsets and thought patterns, and behaviors.

When I first came home, Kaneza contacted me about doing a project with her. It was called Go Forth, as she mentioned. Getting involved with that project was a pivotal point of my reentry experience. It allowed me to do the things I had learned in prison through the arts, to continue personal and self-growth, kick starting my life, but it also gave me a paycheck. That is big and vital for anyone’s reentry experience.

It also gave me an opportunity to give back to the community, and those kids.

Kaneza—Recently we were up in the Catskills with Lumberyard—BAM has a new residency program there. For our residency at Lumberyard, rather than time in the theater, we asked them to help us get access to the juvenile prisons that are up there. We worked at Hudson Valley Correctional Facility and Goshen Secure. Cornell performed his monologue from JACK &, thinking about dreaming, and time travel, and the recipes that shape our lives. This provided us a platform to start a conversation with the young people about their own recipes for dreaming. There are kids there that are serving nine years to life. Both of these institutes have very few arts programming opportunities. We leveraged this initial contact to build out arts programming at four juvenile prisons in upstate New York, in coalition with Lumberyard. That work launched this winter with Cornell at the helm.

Performance still from JACK & by Kaneza Schaal and Cornell Alston

Cornell—The arts can play an important part in these kids’ successful reentry. One of the goals is not just to have these kids home, but to keep them home, and to change some mindsets and thought patterns, and behaviors. The arts is all about discipline. One of the things art practice teaches you is discipline. It teaches you community. It teaches you empathy. It teaches you self-respect. It teaches you respect for others. It teaches you non-violent resolution. It teaches you leadership. All of these things are embedded in the arts.

I speak for this personally, as well as for all the guys that have gone through the theater programs with me. You cannot go through a session dealing with the arts, especially if you want to put on any kind of performance, whether it’s a monologue, or a full piece, without learning these things. It’s just the nature of art itself.

Most of these kids have never been to a play. Art has been taken out of schools, and they’re from inner cities, so they haven’t been exposed. When we expose them to this, there’s a light that goes on. I always wanted to see a play, but as a kid in the streets I didn’t have the chance—to my own doing, let me be clear.

The dreaming gets lost. When we expose kids to new material, the interest peaks, and they want more. So as Kaneza said, it’s about continuing opportunities for creative exchange. Through all that, it exposes them to community, leadership, all that I said. We want them to have self-respect. The arts helps build it.

Alex—I love the phrase you used about thought patterns. When I think about the concept of reentry through the arts, I think of people performing Shakespeare plays. But it sounds like you’re actually asking them to be creative, which is so rare to hear when you’re young.

Cornell—At first, I used to think Shakespeare was lame. Who talks like this, thou, etc? But as I was exposed to it I thought, this cat is deep! So, one of the things we did was take Shakespeare and translate it into everyday speech. I mean, who can’t identify with Julius Caesar? He was set up, and got double crossed. You think, this same thing happened in my life! But it’s just in a different language. If you expose them to different language, they often want more.

For me, I got deep into Shakespeare and I dig the language. Sometimes at the job, I ask my boss, “What wouldst thou have me do, sir?” He would be like, “Cornell, you’re not in theater right now!”

Kaneza—The term “Credible Messenger” refers to someone who can truly identify with your experience. It’s so radical that Cornell serves as a Credible Messenger with these kids and as credible highly experienced artist. For our arts programs in Juvenile prisons, it is essential to the team that we build connection with the kids as they are released. We are building towards a theater-goers club that provides a platform for sustained creative engagement and mentorship. In each city JACK & tours we’ve also made connections with organizations that support folks who are reentered into society. That’s been everything from grassroots organizations run by formerly incarcerated people, to DA offices, to folks who run juvenile justice for various states. In New York City we’re partnering with Fortune Society, a very large reentry services provider. We began the relationship during the run at BAM and are now expanding on this for our remount with New York Live Arts. The relationship with Fortune started in partnership with ATI, Alternative to Incarceration Leadership Group, to think about how the performance can platform further conversations.

Alex—How do you guys work together? I know about your different backgrounds, but I’m wondering how it comes together in the studio, or wherever you work?

Kaneza—We’re five years deep in collaborating, so there’s so much shorthand that exists in the room between myself, Cornell and Christopher Myers, the designers and one of the writers of the show. In so many ways, that’s what’s at the core of what plays out is the time we’ve put into this in creating a common language.

Cornell—It’s a beautiful thing. Kaneza has put together a great team. We’re a family, and we get together, we support one another. It’s about getting the message out there. It’s about the success of the message in the piece. That’s what we’re all in it for.

Alex—That brings up a good question: What is success for you? You’re still working on the performance, the connection to communities, and how that informs the work. What does success look like for you?

Kaneza—For me, success is to keep asking the questions that are at the center of the work. That involves continuing to develop the performance itself, and continuing to understand the frames through which the piece should be viewed; so, to create the work and to create the world for the work to live in.

One of the exciting things that we get to do at New York Live Arts is to continue building out what we’re calling “The Cotillion.” It’s a companion piece to JACK &, which will be a lobby installation at New York Live Arts in April 2019 when we remount the piece. That’s going to be another experiment in asking these questions about dreaming and rehabilitating national narrative around mass incarceration.

Alex—How has Creative Capital been helpful to your project and your work together?

Kaneza—Oh, can we count the ways?! So, the first thing we have to say is that Creative Capital provides an incredible financial jump off point. But just as much, Creative Capital provides an artistic community and a community of arts-invested people who become the greatest resource as we continue making the work. It includes everything from artists who we’ve been able to bounce ideas off, to support when we got into jams developing the piece. When we started the project, Cornell was still on parole and we had to literally prove to the New York City parole board that doing theater is gainful employment. You cannot deny someone the opportunity for gainful employment.

It took an incredible effort from Creative Capital to help us get several lawyers together to prove that doing theater is, in fact, gainful employment. All of the resources that Creative Capital has provided has made this piece possible, and has helped us on every side of our challenges: creative, administrative, legal, and beyond.

Cornell—Thank God for Creative Capital!

Alex—Thank you! Well, it sounds like this is maybe one of the steps in this process of building a program that’s both an art piece and maybe a curriculum and manual for exposing the arts to incarcerated and at-risk youth?

Cornell—I really believe that this project should be premiered worldwide. The reality of it is that there is not a city in the United States where these issues aren’t present. If you ask me, the community, the movers, the shakers, the law-makers should be there. They should be on top of this.

You have this issue, and you have someone who can speak to these people. I did what I did, and I paid for what I did. I committed a crime against the community, and I was rightfully arrested, rightfully charged and convicted, and I did time. I learned. I turned my life around, and I know the ins and outs of what these young people are going through. I owe a debt to community. I really do. My community should expect me to come out and make a difference. Part of my redemption has been to help these young folks.

The community, the powers that be, the politicians, should be biting at the bit to tell us to take our knowledge, everything I’ve learned and come out here to help.

If you don’t have the credibility, you don’t speak the language, it’s impossible to work on these issues with people reentering society. Unfortunately, I have influence with them because of my past background, but I take my past and my influence with them to say, I speak your language but my message is different.

A lot of the people we interact with want to know how they can do the same. We had one guy at Goshen, a lady said she was watching him as he was watching me. He was hanging on to my every word. This guy was doing nine years to life, and he was losing hope. I had eighteen years to life. So, as I’m talking about hope and dreaming and getting out, and I’m saying these doors are going to open, you need to be ready, he’s hanging on to those words. Because that gives that young man hope. If he has no hope, he becomes a terror. If you don’t have hope, you will do anything, because you’re hopeless.

If you have hope, then you have a chance. You can turn around, your mind can turn around. I show them how to get there, and they make the choice.

Read more about Kaneza Schaal and Cornell Alston’s JACK &, and the upcoming performance and installation at New York Live Arts.