In order to get to Rikers Island, you must cross a bridge that rises steeply, hiding the other side from view.
A sign in brightly colored cursive reads: Have a nice tour!
At the top of a wooden staircase, you present your ID in exchange for a numbered badge. The exchange evokes travel: ferry ticket counters, border patrol booths. I expect to smell the ocean. Instead there is a pungent odor of sewage, for which Tommy Demenkoff, our guide, apologizes. It’s not usually like that.
Tommy drives our group — Nikos Karathanos and ten company members performing in The Birds at St Ann’s Warehouse, as well as myself — to the island in a white and blue Corrections van. On the way over, to our right, a peninsula shoots into the East River: La Guardia’s runway. The bridge affords the city’s best view of planes taking flight.
Nikos and his collaborators have agreed to visit the jail to perform part of their play. They will also serve as the audience for a show the inmates have prepared. It is the company’s only day off during their two-week run.
Buildings on Rikers have names. Spaces are baptized not for benefactors, like in the theater, but for former wardens. The motto of the corrections department is written everywhere: Semper Audax. Only the boldest.
We arrive at the Rose M. Singer center for women. The unit offers a weekly theater workshop run by the Stella Adler Acting Studio, where Tommy serves as director of outreach. Rose was an original member of the New York City Board of Correction. Her portrait greets us in the entrance, her silver curls and warm smile enshrined in a Tiffany glass frame, large pink flowers surrounding her grandmotherly mien.
Next to the bathroom (only the urinal is working – it’s not usually like that), is an office where we hand over our passports and badges, in exchange for new badges.
Our group signs in, and passes through the metal detector. The men put their belts through the x-ray machine and one of the actresses reluctantly removes her belly chain. And then we wait. We are being fast-tracked. The journey door-to-door from downtown Brooklyn to the gymnasium where the performers will meet the women is about three hours. They will get to spend half as much time together.
“Why the Christmas tree?” one of the Greek musicians asks. The tree is white and decorated with pink blossoms. We are told to line up against a wall, and the performers — who, in their current production, are not accustomed to orderly assemblage — have to be reprimanded a few times. Our left hands are stamped with an ink that shows up under blue light. Tommy asks us to look the officer handling us in the eye, and to thank her. He makes us clap when all of us have been processed speedily. The musician who asked about the tree asks why we are clapping.
Nikos Karathanos and his company have never performed outside of Greece. When we arrive in the gymnasium where we are to meet the women, the room is empty. Our voices bounce off the walls, drowned out by the humming of loud invisible machines. One of the performers asks me what happens next. I turn to Tommy. The beauty and the challenge of this work is that you never know, he tells us. The women may not be able to come down today. We stare at him in disbelief. “Probably they will. There’s just a lot going on in here, it’s a very complicated place. We can’t assume anything.”
The Birds was first performed in 414 B.C. as part of the Dionysia festival, an event, which in the nascent Athenian democracy, offered a chance for the people to congregate and revel, to address state affairs and be entertained—all at once.
Its author, Aristophanes, tells the story of two individuals tired of the corruption of local politics, seeking a better place for collective living. As they create a new settlement among the birds, they attempt to establish an ideal community blessed with equality, temperance and fairness. They call it Cloudcuckooland. But instead of an eccentrics’ heaven, their new society is equally fraught, full of colonial pursuit and injustice.
In his contemporary adaptation — a drastic departure from the original — Karathanos proposes that men are able to build a true utopian community, where humans, birds and gods unite. The production ends with a party scene that, in the real world, most resembles a rave.
Joanne Edelmann, who leads the weekly theater workshop, finally arrives in the gymnasium with a dozen women prepared to perform. One of them wears a coral hijab, two have thick lensed glasses. Another removes the top of her beige prisoner’s uniform, and rolls up the sleeves of the shirt she is wearing underneath.
Joanne looks like she may have studied clowning. She carries around two clear plastic backpacks to facilitate the frequent bag checks she has to go through. She pulls out a sheet of paper that serves as our program, sets up chairs in a semi-circle and prepares her stage. A table and a stool turned upside down represent a forest. The women stand with her in the middle of it. They start making bird calls. We realize they are performing the opening scene of The Birds.
Yoohoo! Woohoo! Hoopoe! There is something immediately overwhelming. The sincerity with which they engage in play; their fearlessness. The fantasy world they create, against the backdrop of their confinement. The musician who asked about the tree and the clapping starts sobbing silently.
When it is our Greek company’s turn to perform they take a deep breath. They were hoping to bring a piano, an upright bass, maybe a trombone. Their voices will have to do.
They sing a capella, in a soaring chorus that echoes across the room. Their chests arch upwards and the sound seems to come from deep inside their souls. Their ribs expand and their arms are outstretched. Their music is a journey across time, across borders. I can hear them performing in the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, where this adaptation originated. I can see mouths open wide, producing harmonies full of passion and grief, solidarity and despair. Melodies no less hopeful for being impenetrable.
“Why do you want wings?” asks Joanne, after both sets of performers have presented their work. “I want wings to soar!” says one of the women. “I want wings to fly high in the sky!” “I want wings to be free,” says another woman, soberly. “I changed my mind, I want wings to be free,” the other woman repeats.
Tommy drives us back to the parking lot, where our visit began. As I thank him, he interrupts me and thanks us instead. Tommy has been proposing theater workshops to inmates for twenty years. “I wish I had found out about this earlier,” he says. “I wish I had more years ahead of me to keep doing it.”
Later, Joanne tells me the women keep making bird calls in the halls of the jail. “The guards say they just respond with bird calls!” she says. “Isn’t it funny?” It is. And wild. And human.
Violaine Huisman is the curator of the Onassis Foundation‘s Birds: A festival inspired by Aristophanes. She is the author of a novel, Fugitive parce que reine, recently published in France by Gallimard, and forthcoming in translation from Scribner.