Takia Parham + Charles Moore, Part 1: Background and Rehabilitation
Rehabilitation through the Arts (RTA) is a non-profit organization that runs arts programming in prisons with the goal of helping “develop social and cognitive skills that prisoners need for successful reintegration into the community.” The organization was imagined in 1996 when its founder, Katherine Vockins, went to a graduation ceremony for New York Theological Seminary in Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Ossining, New York. She asked an inmate if there was a theatre program in the prison, and he said there was interest but no program. A year later, Katherine started what became RTA. Today, the organization regularly serves over 200 prisoners in New York State, providing inmates with opportunities to participate in theatre, poetry, dance, music, writing, and visual arts initiatives.
Charles Moore and Takia Parham are both alumni of Rehabilitation through the Arts. Charles served 17 years in prison—12 in Sing Sing and five in Woodbourne Correctional Facility—and Takia served five-and-a-half years in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Here, they share about their experiences with RTA, some of the challenges they faced when they were released from prison, and how our society can do a better job of welcoming formerly incarcerated people home.
On their experiences with Rehabilitation through the Arts
“I went to Sing Sing in 2000. RTA has been around Sing Sing since 1996. They have special events in prison. Sometimes they have a concert; sometimes they have plays and stuff like that. In 2001, they had a special event, which was a play inside of Sing Sing’s auditorium. They were doing A Few Good Men. They did an excellent job, and I went to see it twice. The second night I was walking around the facility and starting to meet people and I was like, ‘That guy looks like he was in the play last night. Then I started to see more people. And then I was like, ‘Why do all these people seem like they were in the play last night?’
I thought people from the outside came in. I hadn’t known there was a theatre program inside the prison. Then some of my friends that I began to get to know said, ‘They have a program in Sing Sing called RTA. It’s a theatre program. The guys that put the play on are prisoners. I was like, ‘Wow!’ At first, I didn’t think anything of it. I just enjoyed it and went to some other productions.
I eventually signed up, and it took me two years to get in. I got involved in 2003, my first production being Jitney by August Wilson. [I’ve done] Jitney, West Side Story, an original piece called N Word in which we took the word ‘nigger’ to trial. We did a lot of Shakespearean plays, Of Mice and Men, and The Silence of the Art.
I was involved in about 12 productions. I don’t consider myself an actor, so most of the time, I would shy back to production manager or stage manager-type roles. But when duty calls, I will act. I acted in Starting Over; I acted in West Side Story; I acted in N Word.
The first play that I was in, going back to Jitney, my role was the telephone. If you know anything about the play Jitney, it’s about a cab station. The cab station is revolved around the ringing of a phone, because everyone is calling in for a jitney. So I was the person who would ring the phone on my keyboard. And lo and behold to me, thanks to the director…Dr. Joanna Chan was the director…She was a nun, an Asian nun, and she would sit down and casually talk to us about it and make sure we understood the production. And then she asked this famous question one day. She said: ‘What’s the most important role in the play?’
And everyone would raise their hand and say, ‘Becker, because I’m the father, and I’m the one who shows wisdom’ and stuff…and then Timbo would raise his hand. And she said:
No, everyone’s important, but the most important part of the play is the telephone, because the telephone moves the play.
And that was me. Being in prison for what I was in prison for, that was like the best thing I ever heard. It made me feel like I was important again. So I went to rehearsal every day. I made sure I was there, and it was one of those feelings that came to me because I was not seen. I wasn’t on stage acting, but my presence was needed. It started to bring my humanity back to me.”
“In 2013, I had been invited to see a performance. My friend Pamela Smart actually invited me to see her perform in Amazing Grace. It was a play that the inmates had put on theirselves that they had created themselves, based loosely upon their life experiences. And it was superb. I was so shocked that something like that was being done in prison. I mean the quality of the actors’ abilities, the story line, the fact that there were costumes. This presentation, it was nice. And I hadn’t been to anything like that…I hadn’t heard anything like that in the two years prior to that moment that I had been there.
And that invite…I was sitting in the second row, watching Amazing Grace, watching my peers put on Amazing Grace. And it was through Rehabilitation through the Arts. And I said, I’m signing up for it. How come you didn’t tell me sooner?I didn’t know that this is where you were going, and this is what you were doing.
But I had gravitated to the inmates who, not only did they have a longer amount of time, they also demonstrated just a certain character themselves. Which, after the loss of my mother, I wanted to find out: How am I going to do the rest of this time? So I gravitated toward those who had already done 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. And had just a little bit to offer some insight as to how to do my time. And when I found RTA, that was how I was going to do my time. In it, I also found therapy…which it’s not a therapy program. But, I guess, a part of art itself is therapeutic. And so with that, I continued from 2013 until the day I left in RTA. And that’s every course that was being given from theatre to poetry to hip-hop dance, physical theatre, comedy. There were so many different areas that you could participate in, and it was a voluntary program. It wasn’t a program that was mandated by the state, based off of your alleged crime, be it anger management or money crimes where you have to take a financial mandatory program.
This was voluntary, so you had the option of doing it and finding something in it…and so I did.
[RTA] allowed me to stop acting and to start acting. And what I mean by that and that play on words is there’s a posture you have to have in that subculture of prison because there’s always the threat of your body being harmed, not only by your peers but also by correctional officers and staff, be it a misunderstanding, a blatant issue of disrespect or harm or harassment, or simply just misunderstanding. They have a job to do, and they do it with the utmost force. They’re not required to respect you, and you’re not considered a human being necessarily. The normal rights that one has under the Constitution…you lose that. That doesn’t stand when you are a convicted felon.
So, it gave me the opportunity to let my hair down in the sense of I don’t have to walk around with a mean face or that those who are a potential threat to my body or my well-being or my peace of mind will think twice before they come to me to harm me. I didn’t have to posture any more. I could put on a new self through a character or by exploring my emotions…they don’t always have to be negative. Those are things that happen to most people. To find joy in the moment or to look at any issue where you have to be told every minute what to do—10 minutes is the max you have to be privately in your room, because there’s a window in which officers will come around every 30 minutes to check and see if not only are you all right, but are you doing something you’re not supposed to? Mostly they come with the attitude of: What are you doing in there? Well, there’s a toilet here, too, where I sleep, so I may be using that. And you don’t have the right to say, I’m going to make a curtain and I’m going to close that area off, so you can’t see me. It is a dual reason for that. And again, they have a job to do. And that sense of dignity being taken and stripped from the normal person. You try to find something—anything—that will make you feel dignified and still have a sense of self and identity and esteem. And so, that’s what RTA did.
And I say it was life-changing, because I cleave to it. The two hours that I would get to learn something new—be it someone’s bringing in art that I had never heard of or artists I had never heard of in any theme or area of art. It was enough to say, I needed this break right now, between the hours of 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock, I needed this break. And that’s what it did.”