“Echoes of Attica,” a play reflecting on the Attica Prison revolt of 1971, went up this Sunday, Sept. 12, on the steps of the Center for the Arts (CFA) Theater Department building. Employing a powerful back-and-forth between spoken word, rap, singing, and dialogue, the piece brought the legacy of the bloodiest and most consequential prison uprising in American history to life, 50 years after it occurred.
The seven-person cast of “Echoes of Attica” was largely composed of formerly incarcerated performers, including rapper BL Shirelle, gospel singer Simply Naomi, Crystal Walker, Dario Peńa, and Assistant Professor of the Practice in Theater Edward Torres. Also in attendance—and quoted throughout the play—was Attica uprising survivor Carlos Roche, who opened the performance and spoke during the discussion afterward, reminding the audience that “Attica is all of us.”
Sophie Griffin: I really didn’t know what to expect going into this, but it was a very moving, upsetting performance. When we wrote the arts update, I did a little research about Attica, just so I could be informed to write a few sentences about it. And I really had never heard about it, which I think is emblematic of a lot of things within our society, within America, but made it a lot more powerful to me.
Talia Zitner: Definitely. I remember seeing it on the website, I thought it sounded really interesting. I honestly did not realize it was written by a member of the faculty until I got there. That’s actually a lie. I didn’t realize it was written by a member of the faculty ’til after the play.
And then I was reading about it later. But shoutout Ron Jenkins. Building off of that, Sophie, I think I’ve heard of Attica before, like the name sounded so familiar to me. But I had never heard details about it. And I’m trying to think now, but I don’t think I know of any other real prison riots to reform movements, beyond “Orange is the New Black,” which is obviously fictional. So it made me think a lot about my own knowledge of the carceral system but also prison reform. It pushed me to consider the reasons I didn’t know this. Is it because the people that were primarily affected are Black people and people of color? Is it because I don’t have experience with the carceral state in the U.S.? It definitely made me consider all of those different facets.
Aiden Malanaphy: I agree. I hadn’t considered this as an event that was in the genre of things that we usually remember or are taught in school. By extension of that, it’s not something that we’re used to seeing culturally reproduced. So one of the most surprising things about this performance was not only the subject as something that was entirely foreign to me, but also the way in which it was performed in this very intimate setting, where all you have was chairs and a staircase and a ramp to the theater building in the CFA. I thought in many ways the starkness of the performance underlined the fact that there’s so little cultural precedent and symbolism attached to [plays about the carceral system] as opposed to something like a typical theater performance, where you have props and a narrative and these sort of background elements that are meant to draw your attention in different places. The power of this narrative came from its truth, which was powerful enough to speak for itself without any of those other elements. So it was something that was completely foreign to me, but once I had seen it made entire sense, the way that they portrayed it.
TZ: I think your point about the space is really interesting, especially because I know that the next time they’ll perform this will not be at Wesleyan. And I’m really curious how different spaces are going to affect the performance. Sorry to whoever designed the CFA, but those walls literally looked like they could have been prison walls, just like with the concrete nature and height of them and the design. I could suspend my disbelief in the sense that I could think, like, ‘oh, this is not the CFA. We are in Attica Prison. Like this is the wall of cell block D, where [as] they’re describing, these men are fighting for their lives.’
AM: One particular element of that that I thought was interesting was how Dario Pena, who played the FBI director and the special agents, was at the top of the stairs. He was really kind of dictating things as he read these transcripts of the government officials.
TZ: Literally above the rest of the performers. Even when BL was rapping, they were walking down the steps and like where they were never really up on the same level as Dario, which was a really interesting choice.
SG: I thought Professor Torres was also someone who was using the space really well because he spent a lot of time talking to the audience very directly. This kind of thing is so obviously political and so obviously about being a call to action. He got in our area and looked at us. One of the things he said in the post-performance discussion, that I thought was really important, was [that] this is aimed at young people, it’s aimed at consciousness raising. And honestly, some of the things that FBI agents or other people in the government said back then about extremism and about radicalism are things that we’ve heard and continue to hear in the last year and since the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. I thought it was both disheartening and kind of, I don’t know what the word is, but the movement has not changed and it’s wonderful that people are continuing to fight, but no one should have to fight for these very basic rights.
TZ: What that brings to mind is images from over the summer of 2020 of Black Lives Matter protesters being gassed and attacked by the police in every single major city in the country. And one of the big moments that they talked about in the play was the moment that the incarcerated folks started being gassed by the police that were coming in to quell this riot. It’s really interesting that those images are so paralleled, just like continual violence that we see against non-white people in America.
SG: There are also moments within the play when they were describing the physical brutality that the guards and other agents of the state were inflicting on these people where I was thinking about things that happened in modern history that showed the world that human brutality is something that is really ever present. Abu Ghraib, that was coming to my mind, in some of the imagery as well as World War II war crimes. And just a reminder that there are very dark parts of humanity that when people have authority and when people do not view other human beings as human beings that come out and are really horrific and destructive.
AM: Remembering the extent to which this is still something that’s with us was really aided by the fact that there was the survivor of Attica there, Carlos Roche. The way that the play went and the way that he’d spoken before and after was sort of an indicator of the ongoing nature of the topic. It didn’t seem like there was this sort of narrative arc that ends with the end of the play. It seemed like it was incredibly ongoing. When Professor Torres was giving one of his final speeches I remember he said something along the lines of, ‘now it’s up to you. If you realize that oppression is happening, it’s not on the oppressor, it’s on you.’ And I think the way that this sort of obscures your expectation of an end and of finality was very impactful and I think necessary because how could you put on a play like this, where at the end, the curtain closes, and then everyone goes back to being someone else? It seemed like they were still very much the characters that they played by the end when they were sitting on the steps and doing the Q & A and we were simply unraveling like another element of their truth.
TZ: I think it’s really important to keep in mind when watching the performance, but also when thinking about its implications, that the majority of the folks who acted in the piece itself were formerly incarcerated. That was also something I did not know walking into this space but was incredibly powerful. I know Dario had literally been released from prison like 18 months before this performance. And it’s an interesting thought to think about how everybody shows up to that space with a different identity and a different level of experience and understanding of what advocacy is and what its implications are. You have people like Carlos, who were literally there during the days of this riot and who survived this riot. And then you have people who are telling this story who have firsthand experience being incarcerated, and then you have people like us who are white students at Wesleyan who have never had any sort of experience with the systems of incarceration in the US and really didn’t even know much about Attica at all. So it’s an interesting dynamic to think about what people bring to the space and what their social responsibility is after they leave the space to take that information and experience and use it as a tool of continued advocacy.
SG: Also the fact that the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising is going on during the pandemic, when jails have such a higher rate of both COVID and mortality and the things they were saying about the lack of medical treatment. The fact that many of these people had such horrible wounds and just were given Aspirin or told to get over it. And the fact that still today, there are the same issues. It’s just so horrific to imagine. There was a Foucault quote in the end that was talking about how the prison was about eliminating people. And I think that the fact that by its nature, prison is outside of our society and is hidden from us. If we are not paying attention and trying to advocate for these people, they physically cannot advocate for themselves because they are imprisoned. In our greater society, I feel like there’s a lack of empathy for incarcerated people. I’ve heard a lot of people say really horrible things about people. There’s a sense of, ‘oh well, you did something wrong to be incarcerated,’ which is of course not always true and of course doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve respect or humane conditions. The fact is that as taxpayers, we are the ones who are literally building these prisons. I was just left with a lot of sense of responsibility and desire to both learn more and do more.
TZ: It definitely begs the question: where do we go from here now that we have information? I definitely left the show being like, oh my God, there’s so much that is wrong with the way that this country treats Black people and Brown people and people of color and indigenous people and incarcerated people and people that the government has been built to eliminate. We have built this government that is sanctioned to literally murder people, without consequence. The weight of that is quite intense. I was left wondering, where do I start? Where can I begin with taking what I have learned from this space and applying it to anti-racist action and tangible goals that can actually work towards positive change?
AM: The mantra that Carlos ended on every time he talked was, “Attica is all of us.” Though he had said that before the play began, when he first gave a comment, listening to him say it after the play ended was a completely different experience. Because by the end you realize that the humanity of what you’ve heard is inescapable and that it imbues all of the attendance and everyone in the world with a responsibility to go forward from here.
Visit https://cpereentry.carrd.co/ to learn more about Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education Re-Entry Fund to aid incarcerated students in meeting their needs as they rejoin their communities.
Aiden Malanaphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sophie Griffin can be reached at email@example.com.
Talia Zitner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.