Recently, I found myself yelling down a corridor of Horizon Juvenile Center, “I’ll miss you.” I was communicating with Destiny*. She had just been convicted and was heading upstate to serve her sentence. She is fifteen.
I knew she wouldn’t be able to hear me through the thick glass and metal door of this secure facility. But I yelled it anyway.
Right after I did that, the thought struck me, “How did I get here?!”
If you told me five years ago that I would be spending most of my days inside juvenile detention centers and jails for adolescents, I would have told you that you were crazy.
When I was sixteen I discovered acting and ever since then, I’ve dedicated my life to being a professional actor. I loved the ability to express myself through someone else’s circumstances. It gave me freedom but it was also safe, because no one would know how personal I was really being.
That dream led me to NYC where I eventually graduated from the prestigious Graduate Acting Program from NYU’s TISCH School. After a few years of actually living as a professional actor I found myself starting to feel an emptiness inside.
“This can’t be it,” I often said to myself. The realities of the business didn’t resemble feelings of freedom and joy I experienced as a young actor in training.
In order to combat the feelings of emptiness, I went on a journey that led me to teach theater to incarcerated men at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the infamous maximum security prison in Ossining, NY (where the terms ‘The Big House’ and ‘Up the River’ come from.) The experience changed my life. I often describe it as opening a door that I’ll never be able to close again.
It was here that I learned about the realities of mass incarceration, how it disproportionately affects people of color, and the poor, and witnessed first hand the power of theater as a tool for self transformation.
Convinced that I could make a difference, on June 7th, 2013, I started what would become to known as Drama Club at Crossroads Juvenile Facility in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
The process was grueling and challenges constantly presented themselves. The detention center wasn’t used to consistent programming and many times after making the hour and a half trip there; I was turned away because someone had forgotten to tell security I was coming. The kids didn’t trust me, the staff didn’t trust me and detention is a very transient environment. It is where youth stay while their cases are tried in court and the typical stay can range from one day to four years, depending on the severity of the charge. And there was no funding for programming.
People in my life questioned what I was doing. “Why are you working so hard for free? Just wait till you get some money.” Or, “Those kids made their choices, why should they get theater classes?”
But what I discovered was a whole class of NYC youth that no one knows about-‐the forgotten youth of NYC.
Almost all of these kids come from the same five poor neighborhoods. Ninety-five percent of the youth in detention in NYC are black and brown. An overwhelming number of them have been the victims of abuse, neglect and an alarming lack of resources. Some of the youth are also involved with the foster care system and some have told me they don’t know where their mothers are.
They are also really funny and talented. They blow me away with the their intelligence every week. And they love drama. They share the same feelings that I do about acting as a way to share personal things about yourself under the safe cover of a “character.” As one youth said, “You can tell your life and no one will know it’s your life.”
This waswhy I kept going and continue to keep going. It’s how I found myself shouting “I’ll miss you” down a hallway in a secure juvenile center in the South Bronx.
I had gotten to know Destiny through the twice weekly drama classes I teach at Horizon. She rarely missed a class. She was our star; a team player who always accepted her scene partner’s challenge and was always ready to take a risk in her scenes.
The laws of confidentiality prohibit me from revealing any personal information about her. But I will say this; she has experienced things that hopefully most of us will never experience in our lifetimes.
When I found out she was leaving, I asked if I could visit her in her hall. The answer that day was no. (The rules seem to change daily in these facilities.) But a very sweet staff member said she would bring Destiny to the thick metal door, which can only be opened by a huge key, and we could wave at each other through the glass.
So when I saw her appear on the other side of the glass I yelled down the corridor. Then she laughed. She couldn’t hear me but could tell I was yelling. But then she made a heart sign with her hands. And I did it back. That’s just one of the things she taught me.
I feel blessed to work with these youth. I think as human beings we can intuitively understand when others need help. And that’s the reality of this work; working with kids who need help on a very profound level. I have so much gratitude that my life involves teaching drama to the forgotten, but amazing, youth of NYC.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality
Josie is the founder and Executive Director of Drama Club. Previous work includes teaching at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and Woodbourne Correctional Facility, both men’s prisons upstate New York. She taught courses on acting, public speaking and comedy to these incarcerated individuals and had the honor of performing alongside them in full productions of “A Few Good Men” and “Our Town”. Before founding Drama Club, Josie developed a year-round drop-in acting class for GEMS (Girls Educating and Mentoring Services) serving girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. She was also an integral part of the development and implementation of a new theatre program for youth from Hour Children and Ravenswood Houses (NYCHA), which she co-facilitated with a formerly incarcerated person. Over the last eight years she has taught Acting, Improvisation, and Text Analysis at Fordham University, New York University, Montclair State University, Nassau Community College, Purchase College, SUNY and Larry Singer Studios. She holds an MFA from NYU’s Graduate Acting program.