Animated and rhythmic drumming captivated an audience of about 75 prisoners and a dozen Bay Area community members during a Sept. 18 graduation ceremony for a program designed to guide multicultural prisoners on a path toward self-discovery.
Several skits and comedic acts brought lots of laughs at the ceremony for ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves).
The performances centered on confusion the prisoners felt as immigrants because of their Eastern culture, along with the challenges of adjusting to life behind bars.
Within minutes after the acts, the testimony by an apologetic Tran Vu had the front row of Bay Area mothers, grandmothers and volunteers in tears.
Vu talked about the healing power he received during a telephone call to his mother.
“Very rarely does a mother or father in my culture tell children ‘I love you,’” Vu said. “The way love is shown is by providing food on the table and clothes on our backs. It’s amazing how one simple expression could change an entire life. Just hearing a parent say ‘I love you’ could be a life-changing moment.”
After the telephone call, Vu said he’s dedicated himself to being a better son.
“To be worthy of her love, I need to live life with a positive attitude so I could be with her,” Vu said.
Upu Ama and Jonathan Chiu entertained the audience with comedy based on Asian-Pacific Islander (API) culture.
Ama made light of having an athletic look, but actually being a well-read Shakespearean actor who loves playing the ukulele. His quick-witted jokes about API stereotypes found on television and clowning about fast-paced technology creeping into prisons were hilarious and exceptionally fresh.
Chiu followed Ama by finding humor in the ethical strictness found in Asian culture. His roasts about family, fathers, driving, stereotypical gibes about math, and sexuality in prison kept the audience laughing.
The Taiko drummers, led by Kasi Chakravartula, call themselves The Silver Foxes.
The drumming was intensified by its contrast to the gentle sounds coming from Japanese flutist Peter Yung. Yung’s serene performance heightened the deep pulsating beat coming from all parts of the drum, including its rim and the buttons fastening the drum skin.
Drummers danced back and forth between their instruments as they pounded them with rhythmic motions that included chants and laughter, which brought whoops and applause from the audience.
After the performance, Yung explained the difficulties of tuning his flute. It has to be tuned from the inside-out, “which is a great metaphor,” Yung said, for how ROOTS participants learn about themselves.
“From the bottom of my heart and soul, I was lost and confused,” said graduate Moua Vue. “When I came to ROOTS and my own people supported me, I woke up. It didn’t matter what I did in the past; ROOTS motivated me and gave me the compassion that 17 years ago I didn’t get.”
The guiding principle behind ROOTS is “No History; No Self; Know History; Know Self.” Its participants work “toward developing self-awareness and understanding how to be a productive member of one’s community,” said lead facilitator Phoeun You.
“This group gives me guidance to understand all races, not just my own”
You added, “By going through the ROOTS curriculum, individuals are able to understand how they developed into the person they are today and put their current circumstances into context. It helps the men see the truth of who they are and how they got to prison.”
Graduate Lee Xiong said, “I learned a lot about my history. ROOTS has given me a platform about Laos and Cambodia and how it played in my life. I will continue to try my very best.”
“This group gives me guidance to understand all races, not just my own,” graduate Anthony Banks said.
ROOTS facilitator, Damon Cooke, said, “It’s hard for men in prison to express themselves honestly. The results are a testament to the volunteers who come in to give us a platform and space to learn who we are. It is essential that we do know who we are and where we come from — learning how to clear the smoke and get to the core of a problem.”
You added, “We all need one another. Bearing witness in what we do in ROOTS should inspire everyone to take a stand together. Take a stand for peace. Take a stand for community. Take a stand for family.”