Heartless. It’s the name of the play, but it’s also an allegory for the way the men felt when they were incarcerated.
Five men, four of them convicted murderers, performed the play Monday night at the South Bend Civic Theatre. The play weaves a work of fiction in with the stories of the men.
“The story is about hope” said Antrone Crockett. He tells his story in the play, and he also wrote the short story in the play as well. “It’s about self-reflection and redemption. Trying to overcome your adversities and doing something with them. The story and our stories coming through what we have came through and being who we are today, runs parallel.”
The short story Crockett wrote is about a baby born without a heart. In between scenes from the child's short life, the five men tell their stories.
“Twenty-six years in the belly of the beast, with seemingly no hope," Jamarcus Fields told the audience at the civic, lying on a bench in the spotlight on stage. "See, most of the friends I grew up with sold they souls to the devil. I managed to keep mine. But I ended up losing my heart. Which one’s worse?”
Fields was recently released from the South Bend Community Re-Entry Center. The other four men will be in the next few years. The center runs sort-of like a half-way house. The men inside spend most of their days outside it; working and volunteering in the community.
Charles Bowen is the warden at the Re-Entry Center. He said the partnership with the Civic is another way to prepare the men to come back into society, and to prepare the community to take them.
“All of these men, whether we like it or not, are gonna be our neighbors," Bowen said. "We can’t stay mad at them. We have to realize that. And everything that we’re doing here is to prepare these men so they can get a nice solid release.”
The Center began working with the Civic as community service. A group of men come to the theatre to help with sets and other work behind the scenes. Then a few of them auditioned and were cast in a production of A Few Good Men.
At first, John Applegate was not interested in being on stage. “I was just going to be working in the background but as we went to rehearsals and I saw how the cast and the theatre embraced us and didn’t judge us my anxiety level dissipated completely.” Applegate said performing at the Civic, both in A Few Good Men, and with Heartless has helped with all his anxiety.
After A Few Good Men, Antrone Crockett took the pages of his short story and gave it to the director, Terry Farren.
“Antrone came up to me and just very nonchalantly says ‘Hey, I have this short story I want you to read.’" Farren recalled. "I go home, I sit down and read it... bawling like a baby and I just said ‘wow, I need to help them develop this.’”
Farren and Crockett brought the idea to the rest of the men. Elijah Suggs said they could see themselves in the heartless child.
“We all could see the correlation between the child and ourselves in a way. Everybody has different experiences throughout life but we all felt that we lived through some of the same experiences had the same type of emotions, the same thoughts, the same feelings, the same dealing with people and society.”
Deatron Lee, who also tells his story in Heartless, said the performance as a whole is stronger than the stories on their own.
“I can sit here and listen to each one speak and their own individual experience by going through prison or whatever, I can even listen to the storyline itself of the play and it won’t touch me. I mean, it will, but not in the fashion that it did when I’m actually there and I’m seeing how it affects everyone else.”
Jennifer Boht was at the performance, and stayed for the talkback afterward. She asked the men, and the audience, to remember that these crimes had victims.
She said she thinks what they’re doing is good, but that victims voices should be represented.
“I think that’s wonderful. I would love for someone to speak to the person that raped me and said ‘hey, man this is uncool you can’t do this to little girls, it ruins their lives you can’t do that.' And maybe if someone like them had spoken to him I wouldn’t be in the situation I am now.”
Aaron Nichols, the executive director of the Civic, said they hope the play can be used to reach kids before they make the kind of choices that get them incarcerated. “We have to take this to our next generation. We have to have the kids, whether they’re in juvenile justice or whether they’re just part of the middle schools,” Nichols said. "Violence in South Bend is a real problem and so is incarceration and this play so truthfully explores those two things."
“What’s important is who they are today," director Farren said. "They’re ready to be part of the community, they’re ready to give back to the community.”
A next performance for Heartless has not been scheduled but all the guys want to keep it going. They want to use it to reach out to the kids that are struggling, to help them choose a better path.