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'Caged': How 28 inmates' tales of prison and poverty became New Jersey's must-see play

"Caged" has its world premiere May 3-20 at Passage Theatre in Trenton.

Chris Hedges (in tie) with the East Jersey State Prison inmates who collaborated to write “Caged,” world premiering through May 20 at Passage Theatre in Trenton, N.J.
Chris Hedges (in tie) with the East Jersey State Prison inmates who collaborated to write “Caged,” world premiering through May 20 at Passage Theatre in Trenton, N.J.Read moreCourtesy of Chris Hedges

It began as a drama class for inmates at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, N.J. Twenty-eight men serving a combined 515 years wrote scenes of their lives, tales of brutality, racial division, loneliness, estrangement from family, and poverty.

Their teacher thought it would make a great play. And the one inmate who got out rewrote it and rewrote it.

Now, after almost five years of labor by many hands, their work comes to the stage. On Thursday, Caged has its world premiere at Passage Theatre in Trenton, running through May 20. Although a work of fiction, Caged weaves together the voices and stories of that class of 28.

Their teacher was Chris Hedges, minister, author (War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning), and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, who had been teaching writing classes in the prison for years. In 2013, he decided to try an experiment with a drama class. "Most of them had not had much experience with dramas," he said.

He assigned the class plays by authors such as August Wilson, Amiri Baraka, and James Baldwin. Each week, he had his students write scenes from their lives.

"When I got the first set of papers back," Hedges says, "I had several that were very strong. Here were men writing about prison, and about the equally imprisoning power of poverty outside prison.

"After two weeks," he says, "I thought that maybe we could make these scenes into a play."

He started cobbling them together: "Sometimes I'd mix scenes, take part of one and add it to another. My primary job was editing and cementing and shaping." He stresses that he was not writing but allowing the men's voices to emerge: "It's like August Wilson says in Joe Turner's Come and Gone: I wanted them to have their song."

In their stories, the inmates revealed secrets that not even their closest friends in prison knew. One assignment was to write a scene with themselves and their mothers. Hedges tells of one student, who, after reading his scene aloud, was found sobbing in the men's room.

One of his students was Boris Franklin. Released from prison in 2015 after 11 years, he's become the man in charge of the final rewrites of Caged, as well as a member of the cast at Passage. Franklin is the only former prisoner in a cast of professional actors. Ironically enough, one of his roles is that of prison guard.

How did the burden of authorship fall on his shoulders? Franklin laughs: "It just happened that I got out first. And since I was one of the stronger writers in the group, it worked out. You couldn't have written it better."

Many other people were involved outside the prison. Hedges showed the scenes to his spouse, classically trained and Barrymore Award-nominated actress Eunice Wong.

"What I saw at first had undeniable power, with sparks of brilliance," she says, "but it was very raw. I could tell that the men who'd written it were working from something that had come out of the movies or HBO rather than the stage.

"You'd have a scene in a Range Rover lasting 17 seconds and cut to a huge warehouse in Jersey, where someone was burning a body in an oil drum. The biggest thing was to grab all the threads and say, 'We have to recast this so we can do it on one stage.' "

June Ballinger, cofounder and former artistic director of Passage, had seen the early results, too. "What I saw was so authentic," she says. "I really believed in it." She shopped a manuscript around to Broadway producers, but with no luck.

Enter Jeff Wise, cofounder of the Wheelhouse Theatre Company in Manhattan. Web-surfing one day, he came upon a YouTube video in which Hedges mentioned the project and a KickStarter campaign he and Ballinger had launched to fund development. Wise reached out and met Ballinger and Hedges. "When I first read the raw material," Wise says, "I said, 'This is amazing, this is great. It's not perfect, but I see a lot of potential here, a lot of heart.' "

At his own expense, Wise set up a two-week workshop. Eventually, a single narrative emerged, and the 28 original voices came down to seven actors who double and triple their roles. "It's a story about economic disparity, about what happens to poor people in this country," Wise says, "especially poor people of color, especially as regards incarceration."

The production at Passage is directed by University of Pennsylvania grad Jerrell L. Henderson, whom Franklin credits with "continuing to work on it, on making it tight." The seven-actor cast includes Franklin, Will Badgett, Andrew Binger, Ural Grant, Nicolette Lynch, Brandon Rubin, and Monah Yancy.

Franklin is a busy man: He'll be fine-tuing Caged down to the last moment, he's in the cast, and meantime he's pursuing a degree in psychology at Rutgers and running a moving business.

But he's taking Caged extremely seriously: "We've had to collapse characters, cut and rework a lot of the material, make it work for the stage." He says his whole family is coming to see it: "I'm excited for them to see it, even though some of it might be pretty hard to take. Because it's working so much better now. I'm really proud of it. I think it's a solid piece of work."