In Prison, Preparing for Home

How the Men of MECC Surprised Me

What I remembered most were the smiles. Wide. Genuine. Infectious.

I was driving home from the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) in Pacific, Missouri, having just been wow’d by Going Home: The Journey to Reentry, written by The Theatre Company of MECC, a project of the organization Prison Performing Arts. Heading back east on Interstate 44, I was of course struck by the consequential seriousness of the place, but also, more surprisingly, by the laughter I’d heard. Not trivial laughter — but the kind used to confront regret and venture hope.

I joined PPA’s Board a year ago, and while I’ve been able to take in several Alumni Theatre Company performances, this was the first show I was able to attend within one of the correctional facilities. I anticipated a bleaker scene.

What I found were a dozen dynamic, self-aware, funny and emotionally honest men, who’d been spending many hours in recent weeks rehearsing the show, developed through their own improvisations and experiences. They were now rightly proud to be performing.

In scenes such as “The Visiting Room,” “Fantasy Interview,” and “Reentry,” the actors explored the world that awaits them when they’re released: the expectations from families; the assumptions from potential bosses; the temptations; the promises (made to themselves and to us).

There were original songs, too, as well as a series of haiku, which the actors had written inspired by photographs and artworks.

After the final scene of the evening — the entire company singing “I’m On My Way Home” — the actors answered questions from the audience. Many of the men spoke about the illustrations they drew for the backdrop (seen in the photos above, and this gallery). While some drawings were highly specific (a particular instrument, an exact road), one was memorably vague and searching.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” one actor said, looking up at his illustration. There was kind laughter at his admission, then quiet.

“There’s a transformation happening,” he continued, his head turned toward the backdrop. “It’s abstract. Something’s being formed. And I hope it’s good.”

    Stephen Schenkenberg

    Written by

    Live in St. Louis. Married to @tschenkenberg. Editor, www.readinggass.org. More, www.stephenschenkenberg.com.