Social Justice Through Art

How would people living on death row believe they have a story to share? How would they consider their story even matters? Society would relegate them to its “outskirts” along with others deemed unworthy of story, where difference is uncounted.

Lynden Harris and the team at Hidden Voices are working to amplify the stories of the forgotten, those who go unheard and unseen. With projects like their upcoming opera A Good Boy, they’re giving these stories a spotlight. One narrative at a time.

Through the organization’s mission, to challenge, strengthen, and connect diverse communities through the transformative power of the individual voice, Hidden Voices collaborates with community groups and programs to develop performances, exhibitions, and other multi-art media to share the experiences of silenced communities. A Good Boy, part of the organization’s Serving Life: Revisioning Justice project, amplifies the voices of family members of the women and men on death row.

A Good Boy was originated after a Serving Life event for family members of incarcerated people was held on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus as part of the Political Science Department’s speaker series. After a reading of Right Here, Right Now, a cycle of monologues based on personal stories shared by men on death row, one of the mothers of a prison resident asked, “When are you going to tell our story?”

“These families are serving the time as well,” said Harris, Founder and Director at Hidden Voices. “They don’t think others care,” she continued, speaking of how the UNC event was transformational for this community, as none of the parents had ever met other parents with a child on death row.

The opera, due for final production and launch in 2020, features the work of musician and composer Dana Reason; Marc Callahan, Assistant Professor of Music at UNC; Kathryn Hunter-Williams, Associate Director of Hidden Voices and UNC Department of Dramatic Arts faculty member (and longtime member of PlayMakers Repertory Company), along with other collaborators and creatives. A Good Boy consists of composite characters—two mothers, a sister, a nephew, and a prison guard—who will weave the audience through stories and experiences of family members of people on death row. The stories in the 90-minute piece are true but told anonymously, and are based on countless meetings and interviews with the incarcerated and their families from across the state. The hope is that this ongoing work with people living inside prisons will allow audiences to connect with their humanness and life struggles, their poverty or loss, the inequities they have faced, and their dreams and hopes, to realize that it could be their loved one sitting on death row.

“We want people to experience the piece in a very heartfelt way,” Harris says. Interviews with the family members, particularly with the mothers, were often hard but were also at times joyful, as family shared pictures and happy memories. Harris also hopes this work will expand people’s compass and understanding around the political implications of the prison system and issues such as the Racial Justice Act in North Carolina, which “prohibited seeking or imposing the death penalty on the basis of race.” It was repealed in 2013. “We tried to weave the why into the piece without it becoming hard to take,” Harris explained. It’s important, she shared, to question the systems kept in place that perpetuate injustices in incarceration.

Harris describes the development of the opera as, “just the wildest, most wonderful experience.” Finding a composer like Reason, whose work encompasses jazz, hip-hop, classical, and more, was important—Harris was thrilled at Reason’s idea to “create a new operatic language” across different genres of music for the piece.

“We spent time describing to Dana what it sounds like in a prison. There are hard surfaces, jangling keys, echoey sounds, and loud speakers.” At the end of a weeklong residency with Reason in June, Harris knew the core team for developing the opera, including herself as a writer, was set.

What would Harris like for audiences to walk away with after attending a reading or seeing the opera after its debut?

“Find ways to connect,” she offers. “Ask how you can use your own voice to amplify this work,” Harris says. “It all starts with us.”

Hidden Voices is a nonprofit partner of the Foundation through Our Focus: Cultural Arts.

Written by Melchee Johnson