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Inside man: Play highlights life after prison

Outside looking in: Actor Cornell Alston stars in “Jack &,” a play about a man adjusting to life after prison, opening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Oct. 17.
Christopher Myers

He’s opened up about being locked up.

A play about a man adjusting to life after prison, opening next week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, draws on the real experience of its star, who spent 33 years behind bars. The story of “Jack &,” which starts its four-night run on Oct. 17, is fictional, but the emotions and experiences it portrays are true to the realities of incarceration and re-entering society, said the show’s writer.

“We’ve created a fictional character together, based on his actual experience as he chooses to share them in the work, so the first monologue begins with him talking about him being in the community room while serving time and the kinds of conversations that bubble up in that,” said Kaneza Schaal, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The show’s lead actor, Cornell Alston, was behind bars for more than three decades. Schaal saw him perform in a prison production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and immediately knew she wanted to work with him.

“His performance was stunning and kind of expanded my own dreaming about theater,” she said.

“Jack &” breaks down into three parts — the first is a monologue performed by Alston, the second is a kind of sitcom inspired by “Amos & Andy,” and the third combines movement and music, drawing on African-American traditions to create a formal re-entry ceremony, said Schaal.

“We created this collaboration on this kind of time-travel musical score that goes through switches, through many different social and sonic codes,” she said. “And the performance in the third section is from many different materials, one of which is an African-American debutante and cotillion balls.”

Schaal has brought her piece all around the country, and everywhere it debuts, she makes sure to connect with those personally impacted by serving time.

“In each place it travels we’ve been making contact in local re-entry communities,” said Schaal. “It’s very important to us have audiences who would otherwise not be spending time together in the same room.”

Schaal believes in the power of the arts to help formerly incarcerated people, and particularly young people, with the complexities of re-entry back into society, she said.

“Cornell talks so much about the importance of the arts in his personal process of re-entry, and I can’t speak to the experience of 33 years serving time, but I speak the language of performance — that is the language we work in together,” she said. “And one of the things we work on together is how to begin doing more work in juvenile detention centers in the state of New York, and building out a platform for folks, particularly young people coming out of serving time in prison and having continued contact with the arts.”

“Jack &” at BAM Fisher [321 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Avenue and Hanson Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org]. Oct. 17–20 at 7:30 pm. $25.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
Readjusting: Actors Cornell Alston and Stacey Karen Robinson dance during a section of the play inspired by cotillion balls.
Ryan Muir

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