Is Orange The New Black? The Truth Behind Prison Shows
When people meet most playwrights and performers, they want to know: What have you done that I might have seen? Sitting down with Joseph Assadourian before his show at The Playroom Theater in the theater district, one feels urged to ask: What were you in for?
“They charged me with attempted murder, but I was convicted of assault in the first degree,” he says—a conviction for which he served twelve years of a twenty-five year sentence. Eight months after his release from prison, Assadourian is portraying some eighteen different characters in The Bullpen, a play he wrote that has just opened. The characters in this seventy-minute solo show range from a baseball-obsessed Dominican to a wily jailhouse lawyer; a transvestite to an Italian tough; a WASP defense lawyer that nobody can understand to a character that Joseph Assadourian names Joseph Assadourian. They are based on people with whom Assadourian was incarcerated, “the most interesting people I met in twelve years in prison,” he says.
But this is not the gritty prison drama we have come to expect—the kind that people with actual experience in prison see as exaggerated and exploitative. The Bullpen is a comedy, nearly a farce, in which the prisoners in a courthouse holding cell present a mock trial for one of its members (That’s the Assadourian character). The courthouse trial that follows the farcical trial is as much of a mockery. One half-expects a judge bopping people over the head with an oversized gavel.
The Bullpen is a comedy, nearly a farce, in which the prisoners in a courthouse holding cell present a mock trial for one of its members
“It does not delve into the dark side in a conventional way,” says Richard Hoehler, the director of the play, who met the playwright when he ran a theater workshop at Otisville Correctional Institution in Upstate New York. “Joe is a very funny guy, and his survival in prison was due largely to that—entertaining his fellow inmates for twelve years.” The very skill that would get him kicked out of class as a kid— using jokey voices, impersonating his teachers—attracted fans in the pen who would hang around with him because he made them laugh.
A juvenile delinquent who had been in and out of prison (“You start hanging out with the wrong crowd, and you’ve become the wrong crowd,” he explains), Assadourian asked the resident “jailhouse lawyer,” Brendan Cochrane, to help him with a legal appeal on his latest conviction. Cochrane asked Assadourian to write a play with him. That first effort, Joey Shakespear, was about two prisoners writing a screenplay that becomes a hit. The Public Theater gave the play a staged reading in 2003, followed by a full production by Ground Up & Rising theater collective in Miami. When his writing partner was transferred to another penitentiary, Assadourian kept writing, and then joined Hoehler’s workshop. (Cochrane now owns a video production company.)
Longtime theatrical producer Eric Krebs was most struck by Assadourian’s “creative mimicry” when he saw an early version of The Bullpen performed at the Castle, and he decided to give it a commercial run.
Assadourian was performing at The Castle thanks to David Rothenberg, the founder of The Castle and its parent organization, The Fortune Society, a service and advocacy organization for the formerly incarcerated. One can argue persuasively that the Society’s birth nearly fifty years ago was a result of the sensationalism of prison dramas. “In all the prison movies I had ever seen, the prisoners were only either escaping or rioting,” says Rothenberg. So Rothenberg, who was a successful theater publicist, was startled to come across a play entitled Fortune and Men’s Eyes by John Herbert, which told the tale of one inmate’s transformation from preyed upon naïf to predator—so startled that he decided to produce it.
Shortly afterwards, a sociology professor asked whether he could bring his class to Fortune and Men’s Eyes and have a discussion afterwards. During that post-play event, a member of the audience shouted out: “These characters are all stereotypes!”
Another audience member stood up: “This play is so real that I thought I was back in my cell.” That first discussion led to many more, followed by speaking engagements and publicity—and long lines of ex-inmates looking for hope and for the kind of services that a theater publicist was unprepared to provide. To meet the need, the Fortune Society was born forty six years ago.
Six years ago, Rothenberg put together The Castle, a play in which four members of the Fortune Society sit on chairs and talk about their own life stories of incarceration and transition. This grew out of the Castle’s regular Thursday night meetings. “Those meeting are the best theater in town,” Rothenberg said at the time; “they have more drama than any play that I have ever seen on Broadway. When I said that, one of the guys said ‘So why don’t we do our own play?’” It ran for about a year Off-Broadway at New World Stages, and has been performed continuously in schools, prisons, courthouses ever since. (The next performance is July 29 at the Bronx Defenders office in the Bronx.)
But such a play is an anomaly. That first heckler’s comment at Fortune and Men’s Eyes cannot be easily dismissed in an entertainment landscape that has never tired of lurid prison shows, most recently the surprising hit on Netflix, Orange Is The New Black.
The series has been well-received: “For all its daffy, dirty ways,” New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum writes this week, the show is more rooted in reality than most of what’s on television, and “intends to illuminate injustice.” But one need only read Piper Kerman’s original memoir of her year in prison on which the show is based to see how far the Netflix series strays from the reality. Much is outright fabrication (her violent interactions with the character Pennsatucky, for example), but even the incidents with a kernel of truth are rendered so over-the-top as to be indistinguishable from lies.
In the Netflix series, Piper inadvertently insults the fiery Russian inmate who heads the prison kitchen, nicknamed Red, who then deliberately tries to starve Piper, memorably having the kitchen help serve her a dish of a bloody tampon. In the actual memoir, Piper makes a similar faux pas to a similar character, nicknamed Pop, who gives her “a ferocious glare” and tells her off. No starvation, no bloody tampon.
Ironically, Kerman herself writes in her memoir: “My own experience was, in many ways, dramatically different from the popular conception and prevailing narrative about prison: who’s there, why they’re there, and what life there is like. When I came home, people would ask me, ‘Did you get beaten up every day?’ There’s an expectation of violence. There’s definitely violence in prison, but it wasn’t a central part of my own experience. I just felt like there’s a much more complete and complex picture to be presented about who’s in the prison, why they’re there, and what happens.” The Netflix version of Orange Is The New Black doesn’t offer it.
There is something pernicious about these prison shows offering the most diverse casts of any other entertainments but then having them portray characters that bolster alienating stereotypes.
“People are not interested in how prisoners put their lives back together,” says Rothenberg; movies that try to depict this disappear. “They were about people coming out, trying to conquer their past. But just look at the number of crime shows—Law and Order, CSI, and 55 copycats. If it bleeds, it leads.”
Assadourian used to watch prison dramas as much as the next guy. (He has yet to see OITNB.) “They’re completely sensationalized. A show like Oz is a joke. Every four seconds, somebody’s killed or raped. It’s not like that. There’s violence going on, but it’s not going on all the time.”
This is not to say that prison is lovely. “It was the worst experience of my life. Now I’m having the best.” Before his release from prison, he had never even seen a play. Now Assadourian hopes to make a career in the theater, which is in some ways a more sensational prison story than any of the usual gore and mayhem.