Theater

Felon: An American Washi Tale

Alone in solitary confinement, a teenager called out to the men in the hole with him: “Somebody, send me a book!” Moments later, Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets slid under his cell door. Those pages were the start of the teen’s transformation into a poet, lawyer, and promoter of the rights of prisoners. Now, 23 years after his release from prison, Reginald Dwayne Betts explores the experience and consequences of his incarceration in a compelling solo theater show based on his poetry collection, Felon. Betts, who recently received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, advocates for literacy in prisons and is the founding director of the nonprofit organization Freedom Reads, which delivers books to inmates and brings contemporary writers and artists together with incarcerated audiences. The theater piece is a meditation on life after prison, criminal justice, art-making and community.

Felon at Princeton University

dwayne betts gestures with hands and speaks onstage amidst red thread hanging with paper squares

Guest artist Reginald Dwayne Betts workshops his his piece, “Felon: An American Washi Tale “ in the Wallace Theater at the Lewis Arts complex on August 19, 2021. Photo by Jonathan Sweeney

The Lewis Center for the Arts participated in and provided support for development workshops of this project in the summer of 2021; since then the piece has played in many correctional facilities, at Duke University, and at the Arts and Ideas Festival in New Haven. Co-sponsored by the Department of Art and Archaeology, the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life, the Princeton University Center for Human Values, and the Humanities Council, the Program in Theater will bring Reginald Dwayne Betts and the solo show, Felon: An American Washi Tale, back to the campus community for a public residency and three performances at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center in early March 2023.

In collaboration with the Department of Art and Archaeology and the Program in Visual Arts, the project also brings a residency with the renowned Japanese artist Kyoko Ibe and her master paper maker. The set for Felon is created by Kyoko out of paper kites constructed from clothes of men that Betts met in prison. The project also brings director and writer Elise Thoron, whose body of work marries scholarly interests with social justice in many vibrant theatrical settings, and the Tony Award-nominated sound designer and composer Palmer Hefferan. Princeton University Professor of the Practice Jane Cox designs the lighting and is responsible for artistic programming, and the production is stage managed by Tyler Sperrazza.

bookshelf with books in brightly painted room

Freedom Library installed in the Old Colony Correctional Center in Massachusetts.

The University performances of Felon will provide a central focus for many collaborations and conversations between various aspects of the University and will be a significant collective event for several communities. In addition to the collaboration with the Department of Art and Archaeology and the Program in Visual Arts around traditional paper making and the work of Kyoko Ibe, the Program in Theater is working with the University Center for Human Values to organize a panel of scholars and advocates for a public conversation after the first performance.

With the support of the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life, we are also working in collaboration with the students of SPEAR (Students for Prison Education, Abolition and Reform) and the faculty and staff of PTI (The Prison Teaching Initiative) and with new theater faculty member Chesney Snow to create avenues for additional conversation and action. We are also working with McCarter Theatre Center to publicize the program to a wider audience, and we hope to offer buses from the Trenton Public Library and Passage Theater in Trenton to one of the performances.

Betts also plans to bring a performance of Felon to a local correctional facility and to install one of the Freedom Reads Libraries into the facility during his time at Princeton.

Performances of Felon: An American Washi Tale at McCarter

Felon will be presented in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center on the following dates. Tickets will be available in early 2023.

  • March 2, 2023 at 7 p.m.
  • March 3, 2023 at 7 p.m.
  • March 4, 2023 at 2:30 p.m.

 

Related Events

The following events and collaborations are currently being planned:

Collaboration with the University Center for Human Values

A panel discussion following the first performance around legal and ethical questions embedded in the play.

Collaboration with Art & Archaeology and the Program in Visual Arts

Installation of the work of Kyoko Ibe in the Hurley Gallery at the Lewis Arts complex; student making workshop with artist Kyoko Ibe and her master papermaker; conversation with the artist moderated by Art & Archaeology graduate students.

Collaboration with the PTI and SPEAR

Call to action conversation, lobby event and reception after a performance led by SPEAR (Students for Prison Education, Abolition and Reform) and the faculty and staff of PTI (The Prison Teaching Initiative).

Collaboration with Trenton Arts at Princeton and Princeton University Prep

A student theater making workshop hosted in collaboration with Trenton Youth Theater (TYT), Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP) and the artist, performer and theater lecturer Chesney Snow.

 

Related News + Media

Watch the interview: “Dwayne Betts and his mission beyond prison” on CBS Sunday Morning, July 10, 2022.

 

View images from the 2021 performance of Felon at Notre Dame: