Editor’s note: The article has been updated to include the correct name of the Prison + Neighborhood Art Project Think Tank.

On July 18, 12 men shared their stories and danced their lives in an exclusive performance at the Stateville Correctional Center that invited lawmakers to reevaluate the parole system in Illinois. The men took the stage after a year of brainstorming, scriptwriting, rehearsing and preparing for a performance within the prison’s walls in partnership with Theatre Y. 

“We have 5,000 people in Illinois buried alive,” Theatre Y’s artistic director, Melissa Lorraine, told the Austin Weekly News. In the state, people serving certain life sentences have no parole option as the state abolished traditional parole in 1978. Currently, about 5,000 people in prison are serving natural life sentences.  

“It doesn’t matter how they serve their time; it doesn’t matter how many degrees they get — and I work with men who have multiple master’s degrees. It’s irrelevant and immaterial.”  

The play, titled “Not To Be,” is part of the work that Theatre Y does to serve men serving extreme sentences at the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. It was written and performed by 12 men serving extreme life sentences who will not be released from prison despite their accomplishments. Among them are, completing an education, a record of good behavior and starting a non-profit from inside the prison to advocate for reinstating the parole system in Illinois.  

Since 2018, the Lawndale-based theater incubator has brought arts to prison as part of a journey of healing, rehabilitation and activism to reinstate the parole system in Illinois. Theatre Y’s work with the Prison + Neighborhood Art Project Think Tank is the result of Lorraine’s commitment to bringing healing to people impacted by trauma, a “real burden of care” she felt after she embarked on her own healing journey after surviving a violent crime in 2017. To heal from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the event, Lorraine attended a movement therapy boot camp in Serbia, one that was key in her healing and recovery but is often inaccessible to most people impacted by trauma.  

“At first it seemed like I should offer it to other women. But then, based on everything I had learned about trauma, I really felt like the trauma of the harmed party is acknowledged by society and the trauma of the responsible party is almost never acknowledged.”  

To participate in the healing of the responsible party and overcome her own fear of men, caused by the trauma incident she went through, Lorraine decided to offer movement therapy for trauma rehabilitation to people who are incarcerated.   

“I did not, at the time, have any idea how much they would participate in my healing journey; how much I would need them for the full recovery,” she said. “But they really climbed in and became some of the most extraordinary friendships I’ve ever had.”  

From the beginning of her work in prison, she became an advocate and ally for the men she works with, who also run the nonprofit “Parole Illinois” to advocate for the passage of a bill known as the Earned Reentry Bill. The bill would create a safe and fair mechanism to evaluate people with long sentences for early release from prison. As legislators often point to victims as the people who want to keep people in prison, Lorraine has often testified in front of legislators as “a quote/unquote victim that does not want to throw away the key.” Yet, the 12 men she worked with on “Not To Be” invited her to take a further leap of faith and co-create a piece of art that could change people’s minds.  

Men performing in “Not To Be” rehearse at Stateville Correctional Center | Karl Soderstrom, Theatre Y

The idea for the play was to perform it at the prison and film it with the help of cinematographers Justin T. Jones and Karl Soderstrom. In the film, that Theater Y hopes to distribute as broadly as possible, viewers are in for a surprise.  

“We can conceal the fact that they are incarcerated for a portion of the film until after they fall in love with the men, and then realize that, unfortunately, you’ll never have the privilege of knowing this person with our current laws because they will never be released.” 

The script was co-developed by Lorraine and the group of 12 men, who answered some of the “36 Questions that Lead to Love” and weaved together their answers in a dialogue where each of the 12 men “speaks their own words the whole time.”  

“We really sidestep the question of incarceration or their original crime altogether and just meet them as souls in the world who have been disregarded entirely,” Lorraine said. 

While the end goal of the performance is to bring change, the process has also been an experience of change, healing and growth for each of the men who have decided to share their story, one that is often judged as unforgivable by lawmakers and the public alike.  

One of the challenges in the performance is that every man must do a “five-minute life dance,” described by Lorraine as five minutes on stage where every person must physically embody their journey of life through movement. This process is challenging for some, natural for others and an active process of reflection and healing for all, she said. 

“Some of them even said how do you expect me to dance 10 years in solitary confinement?”  

In the process, some realized that “to dance your life is an active abolition act” and that the resistance that they feel is surrendering to the message that “they don’t have a life,” she said. But then, they realized that if they are interested in seeing their inmates’ life dance, then their own lives matter.  

“Art is really the way to move public opinion,” Lorraine said.  

To learn more about Theater Y, including their upcoming performance schedule for the play “The Wiz,” visit www.theatre-y.com

Men serving natural life sentences created the play to change public opinion about parole in Illinois | Karl Soderstrom, Theatre Y