“I grab pieces of paper at work and paper towels and I write poetry and I write small excerpts for kids. I do mainly the things I need to do in order to maintain myself in these places. Writing helps. Writing is everything for me. It is my creativity. It is my escape. It is how I fly.”
Brewer is one of six incarcerated playwrights and poets who share their stories and creative vision from behind the bars and wire of the Kentucky correctional system in the award-winning documentary “I Come From” by filmmaker Robby Henson.
Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at East Tennessee State University will present a free screening of “I Come From” as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers on Monday, March 13, at 7 p.m. in ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium. The screening is free and open to the public and will be followed by a Q&A and reception with Henson.
“I think writing is almost a human right, trying to understand yourself is a human right,” says Henson, who made documentaries in New York and feature films in Los Angeles for more than 30 years.
“And even if they have taken away your individuality and what you can do and what decisions you can make, they can’t take away your ability to tell your own story and create. And by ‘them,’ I mean the system that does the incarcerating.”
America is the world's largest jailer, and the country’s over-burdened corrections system treats individuals as numbers, Henson says. He calls himself a “Johnny Appleseed” of the power of arts programming that treats the incarcerated as humans with not only rights but minds and souls.
Several years ago, Henson left Los Angeles and returned to Danville, Ky., as artistic director to his family’s legendary summer-stock outdoor theater, the Pioneer Playhouse, which has brought “Broadway to the bluegrass since 1950.”
In addition to summer seasons of theater, Henson and his sister, Holly, pioneered a program, Voices Inside, that takes the power of theater and the spoken word to the local prison with life- and hope-giving results.
The playhouse’s prison program kindled Henson’s own creative spark.
“I have been making films for 32 years and I wasn’t going to stop,” he says.
“I Come From” was the first film he focused on when he returned to Kentucky.
“I get the same feelings with the documentary film as I do with the prison outreach program,” Henson says, “which is, there is so much creativity in human beings behind bars. When you take human beings and lock them up behind razor wire, they really have to face themselves in really soul-stirring and soul-gripping ways.”
The film focuses on six of these inmate poets and playwrights who use the power of creativity to change the direction of their lives.
“Their poems and plays reflect hard times, tough environments negotiated and mistakes made, but the work of these writers declares a will to survive, to grow as human beings and to embrace change,” Henson says.
“The aspect I appreciate most about … ‘I Come From’ is that it gives the opportunity for incarcerated artists to tell their own stories,” Henson said. “Oftentimes others have told their story, the system, the courts, the prosecutors — in ‘I Come From,’ these artists get to express who they are in their own words.”
It’s important that incarcerated writers have opportunities to communicate their own experiences and remarkable to hear their perspectives, says Anita DeAngelis, director of film series sponsor Mary B. Martin School of the Arts.
“This film is very uplifting,” she says.
Hope is such a crucial element for the inmate-artists.
“Most of those that I do focus on are getting out sooner or later or even some of them have already gotten out,” Henson says.
“We go around the circle in the (Voices Inside) program, talking about what’s going on with them, and one guy will say, ‘Well, I’m getting out in a few weeks and I’m really getting excited about that.’ But I have a ‘lifer’ in our prison program and he said, ‘I’m thinking about getting out and what it’s going to mean, and how I’m getting excited about that.’
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, Dwayne. Aren’t you a ‘lifer?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, man, but I can still think about that. I can think about what it would be like to get out.’ ”
Because of corrections-system limitations on admittance to their facilities and, of course, budget, Henson called on his background of 40 theater productions and 32 years in filmmaking for “I Come From” – directing, producing, assisting with camera work and editing.
Henson holds an MFA from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and has made five award-winning documentaries shown on PBS, as well as five feature films, including the Civil War drama “Pharoah’s Army” with Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Kris Kristofferson and the Southern crime thriller “The Badge” with Billy Bob Thornton and Patricia Arquette.
The documentary also provided Henson with the opportunity to feature the work of another Kentucky native, cellist and composer Ben Sollee. In addition to “I Come From,” Sollee’s music can be heard in films and on shows, such as ABC’s “Parenthood” and HBO’s “Weeds.” Sollee is also a frequent performer on “Mountain Stage with Larry Groce” and NPR.
Creative license – and outlets – are key to Henson’s work.
“It is a beautiful thing to see people who come from environments where creativity was not appreciated,” Henson says, “making those steps and expressing themselves beautifully.”
For more information on “I Come From,” visit www.icomefrom.net.
The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.
South Arts, founded in 1975, is a nonprofit regional arts organization building on the South's unique heritage and enhancing the public value of the arts. Their work responds to the arts environment and cultural trends with a regional perspective through an annual portfolio of activities designed to address the role of the arts in impacting the issues important to the region, and linking the South with the nation and the world through arts.
For information about the film or ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit www.etsu.edu/martin.