Playwright Dr. Ayodele Nzinga was already collect- ing stories of communities impacted by the carceral system when she met Glenn Bailey, in 2014.
She had just started work on “Beyond Bars: Growing Home,” a performance that explored how returning citizens processed the trauma of coming home, inspired by interviews with men recently released from San Quentin Prison.
Bailey had just come home himself, after serving 52 years inside.
His tale is remarkable in its own right. But Nzinga was quick to see how it fit into the larger story of a unique and mostly invisible demographic: Lifers, those Nzinga describes as “hav[ing] spent half a century, a quarter of a century, in the belly of the beast.”
Out of conversations be- tween Bailey and Nzinga, a book project began to take shape, as well as a play based on Bailey’s experiences called “Lifer.” The Lower Bottom Playaz, an Oakland-based theater company co-founded by Nzinga, first performed the play in January 2018.
For a group interested in exploring “what creates the potential for thriving in marginalized spaces,” “Lifer” was a natural fit. Nzinga said she’s invested in bringing
The cast of Life after the performance right way. It wasn’t easy. The pressures of prison are hard. I was blessed to have Bailey as a mentor.” He add- ed, “I graduated from college because of this man.”
The same lessons, they said, applied for returning home.
James, who now works as a reentry coordinator for Ta’leef Collective in Freemont and for San Francisco’s Bayview Senior Services ex-offender program, summed up the shared wis- dom. “People need support coming home,” he said with life changes large and small.
“They need to know how to work a cell phone. I just learned how to work an iPad, and I’m a case man- ager. I’ve been out for years, and I’m still learning how to come back after being away a long period of time.”
The event attracted a full house, including students from Concord’s De La Salle and Carondelet high schools. Speaking directly to the young people in the audience, James said, “What we need [is for you to] go get those degrees, come into the system and support those who are coming home.”
Mike Aquino, who teaches a criminal justice class for the two high schools, was enthusiastic about the performance. He noticed that his students responded differently to the play and spoken word than they did to other kinds of public events, including the Barbershop Forum.
“I really love the question-posing that art does around criminal justice,” Aquino said, “[it] can be a way to get students to think about concepts that talking to a person or reading an interview alone can’t really capture.”
In the coming months, as Nzinga continues to write Bailey’s life story, the conversation will move from the stage to the page, bring- ing the possibility of a new, larger audience into the next round of dialogue.