Dec 28

What I Learned from Doing Art in Prison

by John Dukes | 12/28/2020 2:08PM | Racial Justice

John Dukes

John Dukes

John Dukes is a proud New Yorker who represents Southside, Jamaica, Queens wherever he goes. He’s happily married and has three adult children. John, a graduate of Mercy College, is a staunch advocate for criminal justice reform. He is the co-founder of the grassroots organization Speak Ya Truth, a member of the Osborne Association’s Speakers Bureau, and a parent delegate for the National Parents Union. In his free time, he enjoys listening to music and spending quality time with his family. 


During my time in prison, I was in an arts program called Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA) and I vividly remember the waiting list for applicants like myself who had to go through the process; just to be considered for the program. It was one of my first real job interviews, and I experienced it while being incarcerated. That experience made me knowledgeable about preparing for an interview. This is one of the many things RTA gifted me, so to speak.

When I made it into the program, I finally auditioned for a play called The Wiz. I made the cut, and played one of the munchkins in the Lollypop Guild. I got to do a breakdancing routine and also played a talking tree. During rehearsals, my sense of dedication, my work ethic, and comprehension skills were immediately elevated by the rigorous routines we rehearsed. The director, Kim Breden, expected excellence from the members of the program. Not only that, but the cast, my peers who were all incarcerated like me, demanded the best. For me, it was like being a part of a human rights movement because all of us wanted to show we were much more than our crimes, or in some instances, more than what we were wrongly convicted for.

Yes, it was art and entertaining to outsiders, but for those locked up participating directly and indirectly it was much bigger than a performance. We were free mentally as we joined a club of great thespians before us. We were free to laugh, cry, and smile if the character lines required it.

I remember that our RTA  check-in meetings with members/cast were necessary, and the acting exercises were fun. I remember learning structure from RTA. Pronunciation was definitely a must and vocal projection gave confidence to silent voices like my own. 

I learned with my RTA family that things don't always go right while working with other personalities, but it doesn’t mean you give up on the goal of creating something bigger than yourself. It is true that at times I saw cast members get upset or slack on their duties while they entered feelings, so to speak. But I also saw the same slackers get rejuvenated by others who picked up their slack because of the goal, to bring the play to be what it was intended to be, to make it the best version of the play for the audience.  This transformation from a situation where everyone working alone, with no one holding them accountable, to everyone coming together to tie all the pieces into a greater whole, is called “the process,” I definitely saw, and experienced “the process”. And I think it showed me that it's important to have whoever is in charge of your organizations be honorable, because that allows the feeling of wanting to come together to permeate the atmosphere, and it keeps the broken together.  The sense of leadership; the welcoming environment; the making people feel included; the caring, nurturing, motivation, and loving – it all moves people to do the things that are expected of them. It allows them to surpass the expectations and get to another level. It feels like a miracle.

My experience in prison wasn't pleasant. However, it was not the worst, either, if I compare it to the experience of some men I was around in prison. I'm grateful for what RTA and my fellow alumni did for me. Doing art in prison allowed me to express myself and to bring out truths that were deep within me. It gave me a good work ethic, showed me integrity, gave me work experience, the ability to care, to see other people and to work with them without bias, even when I didn’t agree with them. It let me see the beauty in people. If you believe in redemption, reform, and education, then support programs like Rehabilitation through the Arts in prisons, and make sure that everyone has access to gifts like the ones RTA founder Katherine Vockins has offered freely. 

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