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‘Lyrics From Lockdown’ Creator on Using Art as a Wake-Up Call

Posted on Feb 12, 2017

By Jordan Riefe

  “Lyrics From Lockdown” playwright and star Bryonn Bain performs a scene in his one-man production. (Bob Turton)

On an autumn night in 1999, Bryonn Bain, his brother and his cousin left a Harlem nightclub and stopped at a bodega a block away. They purchased some items and exited the store to discover several men, one of them standing in an open car door, throwing things at a window above the store. Glass shattered and people on the sidewalk scattered to avoid being hit by shards. As Bain and the two other men headed up the street, they saw the car pull away.

Before the three of them could reach a nearby subway station, bouncers from the nightclub—suspecting them of having broken the window—ordered them to stop. In his second year at Harvard Law School at the time, Bain knew his rights, so he and his relatives kept walking. At that point, the bouncers forcibly attempted to stop them. When police arrived, the bouncers pointed at the three black men, who were taken into custody immediately. After four court appearances over five months, the case against Bryonn Bain, Kristofer Bain and Kyle Vazquez was dismissed. No evidence was ever produced to support the charges against them.

Two weeks after Bain’s run-in with the law, his law professor, Lani Guinier, asked her students to write about an injustice in their own lives. Bain cut and pasted what he had already written in his poetry journal. Guinier recommended he try to get it published. When “Walking While Black” ran in the Village Voice in 2000, it went viral before the age of social media and led to Bain being interviewed by Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes.”

In 2002, when Bain was pulled over on the Bruckner Expressway in New York City for a faulty taillight, a routine check revealed a warrant for his arrest on felony grand larceny charges and two misdemeanors. Bain spent three days in holding cells, without being told the charges against him. He met with a legal-aid attorney who, upon hearing his list of academic credentials, disbelieved him and said he probably was delusional.

After a man was arrested at Columbia University carrying Bain’s ID, an identity theft investigation led to dismissal of charges against Bain. Bain sued the New York Police Department and won.

These are the main incidents behind “Lyrics From Lockdown,” Bain’s one-man, multimedia account of his twisted journey through the legal system. The show, which received critical acclaim for its premiere last year, is in revival at The Actors’ Gang in Culver City, Calif., playing now through Feb. 25.

Bain currently teaches African-American studies at UCLA, after teaching in a variety of settings from Harvard and Columbia universities to Brooklyn’s Boys Town detention center and Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex.

He is reviving “Lyrics From Lockdown” to bring attention to the millions of minority inmates warehoused in the prison-industrial complex, including fellow activist Nanon Williams, who was sentenced to death as a juvenile and is now serving life for a crime he didn’t commit. (Ballistic evidence that came after the conviction showed the bullets were fired not from Williams’ .25-caliber gun but from the .22-caliber gun of his accomplice.)

For the revival, Bain found a like-minded director in Gina Belafonte. A longtime social justice advocate, she serves as co-director and content producer for Sankofa.org, an organization that links celebrities with grass-roots organizations dedicated to giving voice to the voiceless. She is the daughter of Sankofa’s founder, actor/activist Harry Belafonte.

Here, Bain and Gina Belafonte tell Truthdig about the shame of mass incarceration and what they see as theater’s role in resisting “the coup” in Washington.

You thought your story was too common to resonate with readers before Ms. Guinier encouraged you to publish. Why do you think it struck a chord with readers?

Bryonn Bain: The reason the story resonated with folks, not just black folks but white folks from New Jersey to New Zealand, [was because] they said, “Thank God you’re saying this, cause we say the same thing but no one believes us. But [you have credibility] because of the elite education you have, the pedigree.” My mom says, “You have the same degrees as Barack Obama, plus one. How come he ended up in the White House and you ended up in the jailhouse?” I said it’s a sign of the times. This is what’s happening. People have been deluded until this last election, thinking we’re living in a post-racial era when in fact we have more black men in prison now than ever before in human history, more people in prison now than ever before in human history. So we can’t be fooled by the symbols of progress into thinking that we have arrived.

Jeff Sessions has a history of racially inflammatory remarks and is on record as pro-privatization of prisons.

Gina Belafonte: Those who want to support private prisons, we have to create strategies where doing business with those people becomes uncomfortable for them.

BB: What’s happening right now in Washington is a reminder of the roots of genocide and slavery, which are as much a part of the founding of the country as the ideas of democracy and liberty and equality. And it’s easier to deal with one than it is with the other. It’s easier to talk about the virtues this country is founded on and not deal with vices. But they go hand in hand.


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