Oberlin Drama at Grafton Celebrates Alumni Who Are Now Restored Citizens

February 20, 2020

Jaimie Yue ’22

Eight white and black men of all ages, one woman, and a man holding a baby post for photo.
Oberlin Drama at Grafton alumni pose for a group picture with outgoing director Phyllis Gorfain (front, second from left).
Photo credit: Jack Lichtenstein ’23

Ten alumni of Oberlin Drama at Grafton (ODAG) were honored at an informal ceremony at the Eric Baker Nord Performing Arts Annex on February 15 for becoming restored citizens. 

Emerita Professor of English Phyllis Gorfain founded ODAG, a prison theater program at the Grafton Correctional Institution, in 2012. The program prepares residents of the Grafton Reintegration Center for a successful return to society through increased self-knowledge, social understanding, and enhanced life skills gained from studying and performing meaningful drama.

ODAG’s 15 productions, some of which the 10 alumni starred in, include Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. Additionally, ODAG members performed The Piano Lesson and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, both by African American playright August Wilson. 

During the past eight years, 66 men have performed in 15 productions, and ODAG has seen 26 men become restored citizens. The program has achieved a zero percent recidivism rate among the alumni who are restored citizens.

In 2019, Gorfain was awarded the Governor’s Award in the Arts for Arts Administration for her leadership in ODAG. While the ceremony recognized ODAG’s eight-year history and its successful productions, Gorfain focused on the restored alumni and their families.

“There are so many people here who I love so much, above all the ODAG actors,” Gorfain said. “We have so much to celebrate.” 

The ODAG alumni include Shaun Bernard, Brian Butler, Christopher Fredrickson, Patrick Janson, Martin Louis, Stanley Martowitz, Joseph Peoples, Gene Scott, Joseph “Buck” Sharp, and Jerome Thompson. 

Gorfain presented each actor with a certificate of appreciation, an article about ODAG from the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, and a 20-page packet of 41 letters that audience members, made up of local Oberlin and greater Ohio residents, wrote for the ODAG actors.

The actors who gave remarks about their experience expressed their gratitude for Gorfain for not only immersing them in Shakespearean theater, but treating them with kindness and respect and believing in their potential.

“I think one of the most special things about ODAG for me is that in prison you are kind of invisible,” Brian Butler said. “To society at large, it’s really easy to be forgotten, and most of us, when we’re in that situation, are forgotten. And to have something where Phyllis and Oberlin students and people came in and saw us, and were there with us… to have them come in and work with us as people, as humans, not as the iconic prisoner, on our level, to interact with us where we were. It was just such a powerful thing.”

Jerome Thompson agreed, citing Gorfain’s commitment to putting on each production and dependence on the actors’ cooperation as transformative.

“[In ODAG], somebody else was depending on me. Somebody else needed me. And that opened up something in me that allowed me to change my own life in different ways,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘I’m really proud of that,”

The prison environment often discourages vulnerability and communication, but for many of the ODAG actors, having Gorfain’s direction and encouragement allowed for a space to open up.

“Coming to ODAG, it was the perfect thing for me… [Phyllis] was like a mother, a sister, a cousin, she was everything,” Joseph Peoples said. “The neighborhood I come from, there’s no community. ODAG for me was a community. It gave me something to look forward to, it gave me something to work toward. It was dynamic in that way.”

Oberlin faculty who have assisted with ODAG include Ana Cara, professor of Hispanic studies; Justin Emeka, associate professor of theater and Africana studies; Caroline Jackson Smith, professor of theater and Africana studies; Gillian Johns, professor of English; and Paul Moser, professor of theater.

Gorfain stated that ODAG will be replaced by a new theater program at Grafton Correctional Institution after her retirement as artistic director of Oberlin Drama at Grafton this year. Assistant Professor Anjanette Hall of the Baldwin Wallace University Theatre Department will become the new director. She plans to stage an original play in April 2020 based on the stories of the incarcerated men she will work with, with the assistance of 12 theatre students from Baldwin Wallace. 

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