My visits to Sing Sing Correctional Facility – to cover “West Side Story” presented by inmates in the Rehabilitation Through the Arts’ program — left me with so many memories. Read my story “here.”
Here are 11 memories you won’t find in the story:
Sing Sing Memory No. 1. Security, security, security.
At times, it seemed the only way I was going to get into Sing Sing was to commit a crime. There were phone calls and faxes to Albany and, once they’d signed off, I dealt with Superintendent Marshall’s office at the prison. They needed another fax, itemizing everything we’d be bringing with us.
Luckily, my photographer/videographer was Matt “I love lists” Brown, who took the request as a personal challenge. He went through his camera bags and wrote down everything he had — 12 AA batteries in case, 1 mini-to-mini cable, 1 reporter’s notebook — in such exhausting detail that I suspect even the guards were impressed.
(By the way, they’re not guards at Sing Sing. They’re correction officers. My list was a snap: 1 reporter’s notebook, 1 digital voice recorder, 3 pens.)
Matt and I made two trips to The Big House, for a rehearsal and then the performance of “West Side Story.” We parked above the prison in the visitor’s lot and walked down the steep hill to the main gate. We were on the list and were waved over to main entrance. The prison is gothic, gray and imposing — befitting its purpose — and the main entrance is a huge wrought-iron deal right out of the movies.
These people were not joking. They barked at us to present ID and to check any cellphones or electronica in the booth to the left of the main door. Signs in the booth instructed officers to surrender their firearms and hand them through the window butt end first. Having no firearms to declare, I checked my phone and Matt’s two cellphones.
Back at the no-nonsense entrance, we entered, answered with Yes or No answers and were invited to take off our belts and shoes and go through the metal detector. We also emptied our pockets onto the counter and those things got a going-over.
I swear the C.O.’s eyes bulged when he saw Matt’s faxed list. For the next 20 minutes, Matt and the C.O. went over every item.
Sing Sing Memory No. 2: “The count is off”
After Matt and the C.O. spent some quality time together, we were ready to go to rehearsal. Or so we thought until one of the C.O.’s said “the count is off,” meaning someone in the maximum-security prison was unaccounted for.
It took about a half-hour to get that straightened out and then, our hands stamped, we headed into the prison.
Through one slammer door and into an inner courtyard where a couple of inmates were cooling their heels. We then walked along a narrow path, between the prison and a steep, grassy hill.
Sing Sing Memory No. 3: Chainlink playground
At the end of the building, there was a high chainlink fence, with razor-wire atop it — and a long covered area with picnic tables set in rows.
But before that — right next to the building — there was a sad, rusting little playground, inside a triangle of chain-link. I could just imagine the sadness played out on this little apparatus, as children visiting their fathers came to a scary, imposing building and were escorted to this dismal little spot, where their fathers watched them play.
Sing Sing Memory No. 4: Johnny Hincapie
The man cast to play Tony in “West Side Story,” was Johnny Hincapie (hin-CAP-ee-yay). We chatted in the front row of the auditorium, while the cast rehearsed “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
Johnny was so thoughtful, really considering my questions and then responding. I asked him if it was hard to play such a hopeful character when he was behind bars. He said his family and faith had given him all the hope he’d need.
He was so soft-spoken that it came as a shock to me when he told me he was incarcerated for accomplice to robbery and homicide. How could that be?
When I began writing the story, I learned that Johnny was convicted for being in the gang that confronted Brian Watkins and his family—visiting from Utah in 1990 for the U.S. Open tennis tournament. A member of the gang stabbed Watkins and he died.
I remember that headline-grabbing crime, as I used to go to the Open every year and it put a chill on the whole experience. And this man was in Sing Sing because of that crime, although he proclaimed his innocence to me.
Hincapie talked about contributing to the RTA program, how impressed he was with his fellow inmates, how they didn’t care what he was in for, just that he was committed to doing the work required.
Sing Sing Memory No. 5: Winter
Lamont Bryant’s friends call him Winter. He’s articulate and thoughtful, a member of the RTA steering committee that helps choose those inmates who can participate in the program.
Winter said seeing an RTA production of “Stratford’s Decision” showed him that “prisoners were able to shed the skin of being in prison as far as them being tough or having to live up to the standards of being in prison. They were able to get up there and free themselves and be someone else for a day or a few hours.”
Before long, he had joined RTA and was on stage, playing a rapper in “Fine Print,” which allowed him to show some of his music skills.
He said the inmates can be a tough audience.
“It’s like ‘Showtime at the Apollo.’ They’re a hard crowd to please, but we manage to do it every time.
“Guys are able to make a productive transition. You don’t see people being the same person. If you give anyone a purpose, it becomes their motivation. We have a lot of guys who have gone home and have been released from prison.”
When I went back to Sing Sing for the performance, there was Winter, serving refreshments and being charming and articulate with the invited audience.
Sing Sing Memory No. 6: Dexter Robinson
Dexter Robinson was the stage manager for “West Side Story” – his seventh RTA show in five years.
At the performance he contributed artwork for a gallery of sorts in the auditorium. One stirring image was an intricate mixture of faces and blades where the blades spell things like “anger” and “revenge.”
“I never knew how tired a person can get as being a stage manager in a musical,” he said. “It’s so complex, you have to stay on top of everything. You have to cater to everyone’s needs,” he says.
Sing Sing Memory No. 7: Losing Matt, twice
Before the performance, Matt was setting up his video equipment and talking to the sound guys. But twice I went to talk to him and he was nowhere to be found.
OK, I’m no nervous Nellie, but I had lost my co-worker inside a maximum-security prison. Where the heck was he? After about 10 minutes, I was borderline frantic.
Turns out he was backstage, getting more video. Sneaky guy, that Matt.
Sing Sing Memory No. 8: “Maria”
Musical director Kim Breden and director Peter Barbieri Jr. had both said it. So had Winter. When men are on stage, they’re not in prison.
Still, I’m not sure I believed it until I saw it for myself.
When everyone left the dance-at-the-gym scene and Johnny Hincapie had the stage to himself, it was a moment of pure theater and—just as they had predicted—the man standing on stage didn’t appear to be behind bars. He was free.
“Say it loud and there’s music playing.
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.”
The notes were not pristine. There were moments of doubt in the performance. But he was there, on stage, singing his heart out. And it was electric.
Sing Sing Memory No. 9: “Somewhere”
Barbieri crafted another memorable stage moment when, rather than having Maria and Tony sing “Somewhere” — “There’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us” — he gave the honor to three inmates: one black, one Hispanic, one white. Re-consider the lyrics, given that staging. I know I did.
“There’s a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
There’s a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
We’ll find a new way of living,
We’ll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere . . .
There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Sing Sing Memory No. 10: Congratulations
After the show, correction officers kept the cast on the stage and allowed well-wishers to come to the apron and offer their congratulations. The cast and crew were euphoric in that heady after-show glow. It was honestly no different than any school or community-theater production anywhere in the world — and that’s what made the moment so remarkable and unforgettable.
Sing Sing Memory No. 11: The walk up the hill
After all the civilians were escorted to buses, we were escorted back through the prison by Lt. Michael Haase, a bear of a man with a great sense of humor who certainly knew his way through the place. Soon, we were back at the slammer gate where we started, and Matt had to go through his laundry list again.
Then it was out into the fresh air and the walk back up to the visitors lot.
The whole experience was eye-opening, to know that there are volunteers like Katherine Vockins, Peter Barbieri Jr. and Kim Breden who will put their passion, talent and commitment to full use in such a unique setting.
The inmates certainly appreciated it. And I appreciated being there to watch it all and bring it back for our readers.