Many fear incarceration. Yet for those who wind up behind bars, the experience of simply being human is soon relegated to a raw-albeit-complex existence, in a hostile realm where ideals like fairness and justice are locked up tight. In writer-director Drew L. Brown’s drama Sentences, the audience is shown through blunt, unflinching drama that sometimes unfairness in our criminal justice system begins the moment one is charged with a crime.
Currently on stage at Players by the Sea in Jax Beach, Sentences is loosely based on Brown’s adolescent years, when his mother Robin Owens was serving time in prison. The play starts with Robin (Rita Manyette) being booked into the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) in Tallahassee. She is soon befriended by Celestina Rodriguez (Julie Ann Dinneweth), who helps show the terrified new inmate the ropes around the facility. It becomes clear that Robin’s new life in the FDC isn’t going to be a smooth stay.
Sentences is a darkly emotional two hours onstage. Inmate abuse, drug deals and corruption are daily occurrences in the FDC. Over the course of the play’s two acts, inmates and guards tell their respective stories of what brought them to that particular place and why they now stand on one side or the other of the cell-block doors. These moments of self-disclosure cast greater light on the complex twists and turns of class, race and our judicial system—elements that are imprisoning to some while freeing others. Brown is deft in sending his message of compassion, fairness and justice directly through these characters’ lives. Without being heavy-handed, Brown addresses larger, universal issues like sexism, racism, justice and addiction with the same credible skills.
A simple-yet-effective multimedia-like atmosphere increases the overall experience of seeing Sentences. Minimal lighting, unique audio effects, even dance—all help in framing the play’s action. Additional cast members, including Ashley Leake, Arden Trusty and Ruth Charlene Davis, help unlock Brown’s characters from the script and give them believable lives on stage.
Brown credits co-director Ramona Ramdeen with helping him turn his memoir into a stage production. Prior to curtain call on the night we attended, Brown and Ramdeen introduced the play and spoke about their motivations in staging Sentences.
For the progressively minded among you, Sentences may make you want to take action for the rights of prisoners and convicted felons. Those simply seeking a night of great local theater will be equally inspired. While +Orange is the New Black+ might be the current women-in-prison drama du jour, Drew L. Brown’s Sentences shows that there is definitely more than one color when portraying a part of our world literally locked away from society’s eyes.