“It saved my life. It gave me a purpose. It made me want to get up and actually go to Day Reporting on Monday mornings because I knew I had these people here.” Casandra Ponton is overjoyed that Civic Ensemble’s ReEntry Theatre Program, which provides people who were formerly incarcerated with a chance to perform on stage, is remounting their acclaimed 2018 production of “Streets Like This.”
Civic began the ReEntry Theatre Program in 2015, as “an opportunity for members of the community who have experienced incarceration—prison, jail, or drug rehabilitation—to learn storytelling skills, create theatre work, and build community together, regardless of arts experience, criminal record, or income.”
Ponton was supposed to play Abby, a young woman going through rehab and trying to regain custody of her child, in 2018, “but I couldn’t keep it together.… but even when I got sent away, I had the script still in my purse and I had the [cast’s] contact sheet, and they were the people who answered the phone and wrote me letters and I developed this strong sense of connection. When I came home, I felt I had betrayed everybody, … but they understood and took me back in. I never had a connection like that before, these people are my family.”
This time she’ll be playing Abby during the play’s 10 performances Thursdays through Sundays, March 12–15 and 19–22 at the Cherry Art Space. Tickets are $15, $10 for groups of 10 and free community tickets are available. Tickets and more info at civicensemble.org/streetslikethis2020.
Casandra had been part of the script’s development. As Tony Sidle, who plays Dennis and co-authored the play with Thom Dunn, explains, “The script itself was developed over a few months. Over 100 people came to Day Reporting and one of the things we did was have people create characters and little scenes and stuff. And we took notes.”
As actor and Re-Entry member Terrell Dickson puts it “As a kid I worked with a dance group, I taught people to dance …It was a lot like this, in that the way you made up a dance step, he’ll make up a part, and she’ll make up a part and we’ll put it all together and it will be a dance step. And this is how we do the plays…I thought it was a great way to unite people, because the play is a little bit of everybody.”
The 2018 production had an immense impact. Deb Dietrich, executive director at advocacy organization Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources, states “it really helped re-shape the dialogue about re-entry, and it did so in a powerful way. We’ve been talking for years about, you know, change and moving things forward and getting people re-integrated into the community and we’ve made some progress, but I think ‘Streets Like This’ put a human face on the problems and the barriers facing people coming home, as well as those who have been incarcerated in the past [...] I invited the whole Re-Entry Task Force, so there were a lot of policy makers, representatives from the various county departments, I think that with any issue it’s really easy to do ‘us and them’ and this kind of venue broke that down. It was a community event, so we were all part of the same community.”
ReEntry meets every Monday 9–11 a.m. at Day Reporting. “I think it was Brian’s idea to move it to Day Reporting [at Department of Social Services],” Sidle said. Brian Briggs plays Johnny, Abby’s son, and Narcan Man. Sidle said he used Narcan in 2007, and that’s how Narcan Man was invented—”because I’d slip in and give them Narcan and try to get out before the police or anyone else showed up.”
“To me one of the most important lines in the play is when Narcan Man says, ‘There are so many people dying, I’m not a super-hero, I’m just trying to keep people above ground. I’m just trying to give people the best quality life possible, everybody deserves at least that much, right?’” Sidle continued.
Jo-Louis Hallback plays Brian, an addict trying to stay clean, close to his mother (Sherron Brown.) Originally from Florida, in 2012 Jo-Louis decided to make a change. “I’d say something that really inspired me back in 2012, was like in my community, there was a lot going on in there, like there were a lot of drug situations, a lot of crime, but even though that’s happening, when I decided to make a change it was the people that were around me that actually supported me. So it was the prostitutes, they helped me out, they would get me money to get on the bus, to get my GED.”
“I ended up here Ithaca, NY and in my mind I kinda wasn’t thinking I would be able to go to college, but I stumbled on this one back here, Suzanne, and she got me into the CIU [College Initiative Upstate, a local alternative to incarceration initiative] program and that was where I met Sarah and—I’ll never forget that day—we had to do some little weird thing, it was pretty dope, but you know how she is as a person, that got my attention, that really inspired me.”
Sarah K. Chalmers is the artistic director of Civic Ensemble and the show’s director. While it is her last big project with Civic before she and her son Sam join husband Godfrey Simmons at his new job in Hartford, CT, she emphasizes that Civic is continuing with new leadership and big plans already in place.
Suzanne Burnham is College Initiative Upstate’s [CIU] Academic Counselor and has stepped into the role of Abby’s sister Annabelle, suddenly forced to parent little Johnny, in place of Amy Heffron, who just gave birth. (Another actor stepping is Leroy Barrett, taking over the part of street sage Deon from Khalil Bey.) “I’m a three-time DWI felon, and I lost my license in 2012 because of it for 10 years,” Suzanne starts. While she was working at Walmart, “one of the girls from OAR [...] came into Walmart and said ‘Oh dear lord, will you come meet this woman, Benay Rubenstein and explain to her how you are riding your bike every day to Walmart while wearing an ankle bracelet for felony drug court and going to school online,’ and I said ‘Okay.’ The next thing I know, I’m offered a job to help people with a criminal background… to engage or re-engage with higher education.”
Benay Rubenstein runs CIU, modeled on a program she founded in NYC. Benay remembers going to the first show “with a young man, 22 years old who had just come home after being incarcerated from age 15, and he was totally riveted, there were tears in his eyes several times, that was my litmus test that they had got things right.” There are four CIU members in the current show.
The actors also play the faces of the system they navigate, such as attorneys, judges, social services, and the police, “from the Meadow Street Mobil to Social Services offices and from the curb outside Day Reporting, to workplaces and homes” with abundant humor, heart and passion.
Civic followed the original show with a community meeting in January 2019 co-hosted by Ultimate ReEntry Opportunity (URO) involving a broad range of human service, social justice and local government stakeholders. URO will again partner for this production. “My hope is that those with the power to push for—and implement—policy change will attend this powerful production, stay for the discussion, and continue the conversations long after the production has ended,” says URO Director Taili Mugambe.
When Tony left prison the last time “I was down at the shelter, I was pretty traumatized, re-entering society and not knowing what to do, then I met Sarah and joined Civic and it helped me turn my life around, and through Civic I managed to do a lot of things I don’t think I would have been invited to do along the way.” Or as Re-Entry member Edwin Santiago puts it “bring the people that are really impacted to the table.”
One of those things is to participate in meetings with people in positions in ‘the system.’ Dave Sanders, Criminal Justice Coordinator for Tompkins County, helps oversee the County’s recent initiatives around reducing incarceration and supporting re-entry. Peers who have experienced incarceration or rehab are an important component. At least “50 percent” of the peers he works with are in Civic Ensemble. “They are probably one of the best assets we have. They really give you honest answers, that’s not going to work, and this is why, this is going to work and let me tell you why.… To stumble, to struggle, and then to be on a platform in front of everybody and speak your truth, I think it’s really, really powerful to see.”
Civic’s work reverberates around the community. As George Ferrari, Executive Director of Community Foundation, one of their consistent funders says, ““We call them ripple effects.… we think that engaged arts to deal with issues that affect our communities, plural, in a variety of ways is really important for us to be able to talk across differences of experience and perception.”
And always, the work rests with its creators. “It’s different when there is something made for you,” says Casandra, “when you are part of the process and when you are telling your story and other peoples’ stories that you care about and want to support and let them know that they are not overlooked. We’re listening …We’re going to help them try to change things and we’re going to make other people aware of what is going on in this small town.”