By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Before the pandemic, through collaboration with Words Without Walls, the Alumni Theatre Company planned a performance of a play written by underaged incarcerated persons in Juvenile Creative Writing Class at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). Nearly a year later, believing the story is too important to remain in limbo,a reading of “ACT 33: Echoes from Pod 7E Maximum Security” will premiere on Jan. 16 through streaming on Facebook Live.
Under Pennsylvania’s Act 33, teens between the ages of 15 and 17 can be automatically be tried as adults for certain felonies, without first going through a juvenile court hearing. Once they are charged as adults, they are confined to the ACJ until the resolution of their case. Felonies include, rape; involuntary deviate sexual intercourse; aggravated assault; robbery; robbery of a motor vehicle; aggravated indecent assault; kidnapping; voluntary manslaughter; or an attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit murder.
“It’s what all the writers have in common,” Sarah Shotland, the program director of Words Without Walls, explains. “They’ve been charged under this same law. So they wouldn’t be in jail, or in our class if Act 33 didn’t exist.”
It was the students’ choice to name the play after the law that binds them. Words Without Walls is a local organization focused on providing creative writing classes to populations that might not ordinarily get them. Sometimes this means the Sojourner House, a recovery center, other times it means the ACJ. Shotland asserted that the reading will provide insight into the lives of teens incarcerated in adult prisons.
“These kids are incarcerated on Second Avenue in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh and hundreds of thousands of cars pass by them everyday and probably never think about the fact that there are children that are locked up inside that building,” Shotland said.
The reading will be directed by local artist and poet Alona Williams (an occasional contributor to the Pittsburgh Current.). As the 23-year-old has been involved in theatre for most of her life–this isn’t the first performance she’s directed, but it is the first that’s been conducted virtually due to social distancing requirements.
“It’s definitely the first play I’ve ever directed on Zoom,” Williams admitted. “You know you still want to make it an interesting experience with the limitations you have.”
Williams herself learned about Act 33 while participating in theatre as a highschool student. She’s revisiting the law from a director’s standpoint, although she hasn’t interacted with the writers, she’s pleased that the young actors are able to appreciate the gravity of the subject matter.
“I think that the actors understand the seriousness of this and understand that these are boys just like them,” Williams said. “Their stories deserve to be told.”
The writing project is led by Mike Bennet who prior to COVID-19, would go into the ACJ to teach creative writing classes. While Bennet was unaware of Act 33 before he started teaching at the jail, working with the students familiarized him with the law and the justice system. Over the years Bennet’s taught creative writing classes, his students would put on readings but there was always a limited audience.
“I was always frustrated that their voices never really made it outside of the jail because the readings were to other incarcerated people and the guards and staff,” Bennet said. “So I really wanted to start a project that would bring their voices out of the jail, and, in this case, on to the stage.”
Should audiences tune-in to watch the reading and the discussion panel slated to follow, Bennet told the Pittsburgh Current they can expect to get a glimpse into the lives of the writers within the system.
“They will learn a lot about the trauma of incarceration and especially what these teens are facing in the jail,” Bennet explained. “It’s anything from displacement, to separation from their families, to conflict with each other, to conflict with the staff to solitary confinement.”
The reading will be available on Saturday on the Alumni Theater Company’s Facebook Live event at 7 p.m..