Cape Town - Pollsmoor prison inmates have taken to the stage, telling their personal stories of mistakes made, repentance, inner demons fought, and their dreams of freedom on the Artscape stage in their groundbreaking play, The Outsiders.
The production, which stars nine current inmates and three parolees who underwent six month of intensive theatre training, opened on Thursday and runs until today.
The inmates developed and wrote most of the script, based on their personal testimonies and histories, addressing the theme of incarceration as a continuous experiment, with uncertain outcomes, and uncertain outside expectations. The result is that audiences are treated to a rare glimpse into prison life and the challenges convicts face when they attempt to reintegrate into society on their release.
Stian Olderkjaer, developer of the “Help I Am Free” inmates rehabilitation programme, said although the programme was fairly new, having run for only two years here, they had seen positive changes among the cast members.
Funded by the Norwegian Peace Corps, the programme saw two actors and a social worker sent to Pollsmoor to facilitate the initiative, which is based on similar successful programmes in Norway.
“We see an attitude change in inmates. In the beginning this was just another programme to get outside (of prison). But they have learnt to work as a group, and become team players. They learn how to create a world that’s imagined. By doing this they can imagine a better and different life for themselves on the outside.”
Carmen Smith, 44, of Maitland, was arrested for fraud in October. She has three sons, aged 16, 13 and 9, who now live with her parents.
She has served seven months of her sentence, and has another two years to go.
Smith’s character in the play echoes her real life; she used to own an events company, but will never work in the field again. When she was arrested, e-mails were sent to all her associates, warning them never to work with her again.
She has plans to make the best of her ordeal, however, perhaps finding work as a speaker, using her experience to warn against the pitfalls of giving in to temptation when dealing with large sums of money.
Smith said she was devastated last Saturday when one of her sons visited and told her: “I wish I had a gun to shoot you in the head.”
She dreaded them using her actions as an excuse for bad behaviour.
She performs a poem she wrote, comprising snippets from things her children have said to her on visits or in letters.
Although her family will be in the audience, she may not touch them, or speak to them.
David Manuel, 36, lived with his brother in Gugulethu before his incarceration.
With a prior record, he was convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. He will be released in a matter of days.
“It’s a crazy piece of artwork… Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be here today,” he said.
Nearing his 40s and stuck in jail, he began to lose confidence in life. But he says the programme has helped him see there are possibilities outside prison.
Manuel plays an inmate with a strained relationship with his father, who speaks of his sleeping disorder, perpetuated by prison life.
“In prison you dream about being outside, and then you wake up and see you’re still in there and it all crashes down around you,” he said.
Xolela Kelepu, 29, from Crossroads, was found guilty of culpable homicide and has served three years and eight months of a seven-year sentence, and is now out on parole.
“I didn’t think at this age I could be an actor… I like drama and I’m not shy.”
He plays a doctor, and sings his own song which he wrote while behind bars. It is dedicated to his late mother.
He says he has taken on a new confidence after that first performance in last year’s event, completing his matric and taking the first steps towards his dream of opening a catering business.
“I want them (the audience) to see that each and every person is part of the community. If you are a prisoner or parolee, you have this stigma… but we are human beings like them.”