Delving into the lives of the forgotten

BY ADAM SALAZAR | MARCH 04, 2010 7:30 AM

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Wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants with a legal pad in one had and a No. 2 pencil in the other, playwright Sean Christopher Lewis stepped into the realm of prison. Unbeknown to him, however, the inmates would become a fascination he turned into characters. On Friday, Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., will put on Killadelphia, written by the UI Playwrights’ Workshop alum at 7:30 p.m. Admission ranges from $12 to $26.

The play is his second showcase at Riverside since 2007.

Killadelphia, a collection of harrowing monologues, follows the lives of inmates sentenced to life in the Graterford, Pa., Prison.

After graduating from the Playwrights’ Workshop in 2007, Lewis took a one-year residency at the Interact Theater Company in Philadelphia. During his tenure, he was approached by the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia to produce a play for the inmates.

Initially, his objective was to create a 20-minute play only to be seen by the prisoners whose talents were responsible for the countless murals painted in the prison and displayed on the walls in downtown Philadelphia.

What came about, however, was a startling revelation and a bigger story.

“Not a single one of them was older than 24 years old when they got their life sentence,” Lewis said.

Killadelphia’s title is actually the term that the inmates in the prison used to refer to the city of Philadelphia. Lewis said the state of Pennsylvania has the highest concentration of youth offenders serving life sentences in the world.

Wanting to dig deeper into the reason crime is so prevalent in the city, Lewis began interviewing victims, their families, politicians, and talk-show hosts. From those stories, the play grew into a mix of insight of the origins of the prisoners, the lives affected by them, and the social fabric of the city that produced them.

“It made me think about how often we hear about people [committing crimes] or directly [being] affected by it,” Lewis said. “I wanted to give people as close to an approximation of my experience as I could.”

Having never been in a prison, his perception of inmate life was based more on popular culture than knowledge. After realizing that his project had evolved from just the prisoners and their art, the inmates grew wary about his intentions.

“There were moments where you knew you crossed the line,” Lewis said.

After befriending one particular inmate through a common interest in rap music, the interview process became easier. The inmates were so pleased with the show that they made Lewis a mural.

Mixing humor and verbatim commentary, Lewis further explored the issues of drugs, poverty, lack of education, and ignorance, which he uncovers as the reason so many of the men are in prison.

Although he doesn’t offer a solution or a critique of the system, he wants audience members to leave with a sense of understanding.

“With crime, we all basically know the symptoms and that’s where the problem happens,” he said. “If you don’t engage with the community, then how are you going to change it?”

Ron Clark, a cofounder of Riverside, has seen Lewis’ work before, in 2007, when he did his first act at the venue.

After Clark and cofounder Jody Hovland viewed the play, they were so enamored by the project that they decided to book Lewis again.

“So much of the penal system is designed to lock people away,” Clark said.

While Lewis may not look like a person who would do interviews in prisons, Clark said, he has a great ability to interact with individuals.

“He just tried to have a conversation with these guys and gain their trust,” Clark said.

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