Murder. Sex. Betrayal. It's all the rage -- and all on stage -- behind the walls of the infamous prison.
To score the hottest ticket in the town of Ossining, N.Y., one must first pass muster with a metal detector. Now follow an officer and his heavy jangle of keys. He’ll escort a group of security-approved guests through four sets of locked bars before leading them outside into the pouring rain. ”I feel like I’m making an escape!” one patron of the arts will yell as she stumbles, jacket over head, down a barbed-wire-bordered path. A Department of Correctional Services van waits at the bottom of the hill, ready to whisk everybody past the watchtower to the Our Lady of Hope Catholic Chapel auditorium. The stage is inside, blue velvet curtains drawn.
The superintendent and his wife are here. So are 90-some members of the Hudson River Presbytery, sitting on stadiumlike seats bolted to the cement floor, beneath stained-glass windows and two large reminders that inmates are to remain seated until directed to leave by a security member. The Quakers are here, and they’ve set up two sheet cakes, cheese cubes, and a coffee urn on picnic-size tables at the back of the cavernous room. Winston Ishon Williams is here, but he’s been here since he was 16. Williams, 41, is serving a 25-to-life sentence for second-degree homicide. He cowrote the evening’s entertainment, Stratford’s Decision, an original Elizabethan-style comedy whose cast includes 25 prisoners and three civilian women. ”It’s a plottin’, schemin’, tryin’-to-overthrow-the-kingdom, take-the-throne, take-the-whole-ball-of-wax type of play,” explains Williams. ”This is not something you see every day. I shit you not.” Live, from Sing Sing, it’s Friday night…
This is John Cheever country, a dense thicket of suburbs for white-collar commuters who pay for their homes and yards with big-city salaries. A collection of New York’s cruelest live in the middle of all this upward mobility. In his excellent 2000 book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, journalist Ted Conover wrote an insider’s account of the shanking, the suicides, and the day-to-day chaos that goes on behind Sing Sing’s steep walls. Some would say rehabilitation is a hopeless, undeserved fantasy. Put these animals away, they’d say. Let them rot.
Williams, a mild-mannered man with deep, crude scars centipeding up and down his arms, is a convicted killer. While behind bars, he has also created 150 poems, 70 songs, and an unpublished novel (”I don’t trust publishers”) about prison life. ”The book’s basically about me,” he explains, ”but I fictionalized a lot of stuff to save people the headaches of wanting to kill me.” He writes on an old word processor that his family found on the Bronx streets.
It was his friend David’s idea to write an Elizabethan-style comedy. David Wayne, 43, who calls himself David Wayne Britton, was sentenced to 8-16 years for armed robbery. Since being transferred to Sing Sing in 1994, he’s written five plays, including an adaptation of the movie Cape Fear, and six screenplays. He also discovered Shakespeare. ”He tells every aspect of life,” explains Britton. ”Even when he made fun of people, the royals in the front rows would laugh and clap along.” ”David loves Shakespeare,” says Williams. ”He just adores it. So we tailor-made a type of Shakespearean play. We knew that the inmate population would not be receptive to it, so we took the language and reworked it. We kind of snuck up on them.”