Interviews

Living in Confinement with an Ex-con: A Performance

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Polly Korbel and Neruda Williams as Anne and Que in ‘Anne & Que Pet Prisoner’ (all images courtesy Jana Leo)

Are you lonely? Have you a couch, or a sleeping bag, or an extra blanket? Do you want to help a human who can help you, too? Are you brave?

Anne & Que, Pet Prisoner, a play created by philosopher and performance artist Jana Leo, New School sociologist Terry Williams, a parolee named Michael, and two actors, invites small audiences into Leo’s tiny Chinatown apartment and asks them: Can you imagine adopting a prisoner as a pet?

“When you have a pet, you are treating an animal as if it weren’t an animal,” Leo said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “You are applying all the elements of humans to an animal. That’s the inverse of what happens to a prisoner.”

“There’s a lot going on with the title, by the way,” Williams added. “People are offended by it — which we want them to be. People are repulsed by such a title, they’re curious about the title.”

Five years ago, shortly after Leo published Rape New York (which is partly a memoir, partly a theoretical analysis of sexual violence), a friend told her to talk to Williams, an expert on Harlem and an unusually innovative teacher. “He invited me to his class and we began talking about this very dense subject [violence] in a very wide open way.”

“The class is something that I’ve done called seminars of engagement,” said Williams. “These classes are really where students have to take both intellectual and physical risk. That is to say, we have to go out into the city as our laboratory, and we have to engage in situations that involve physical risk taking. Sexual adventures, going into neighborhoods where they feel uncomfortable, situations that are uncomfortable.”

Leo and Williams quickly realized that they were both deeply interested in thinking about isolation, incarceration, and confinement in new and collaborative ways. They began exchanging bits of text through text message and email, intermingling sexually-charged, fictional improvisations on the psychology of incarceration with descriptions of daily life in American prisons, meditations on the ubiquity of loneliness, images of hospitals, prisons, and Le Corbusier’s chaise lounge.

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Jana and Michael during the ‘experiment in living’

Eventually it became clear that speculation alone, however virtuosic and well-informed, would not reveal the key to revolutionizing prison life. So, in the shared spirit of Williams’s seminars of engagement and Leo’s performance art, they decided to perform an “experiment in living.” For three days, Leo would share her apartment with a stranger, following a quasi-monastic regimen that required constant physical togetherness, forbade sex, and even prohibited talking except during one outdoor walk each day.

Unable, for obvious reasons, to borrow a real federal prisoner from Rikers, Williams and Leo settled for a parolee named Michael. “I’ve known Michael since he was nine or ten years old,” said Williams. “He used to come to the writers group project [Williams’s Harlem Writers Crew, whose stories are told in The Uptown Kids: Struggle and Hope in the Projects] and he did not speak for maybe six months. The way he would communicate was to draw. He would make sketches. And the sketches that he did were very violent, and they also showed a lot of marijuana use. So Michael became a kind of … I won’t say ‘pet project’ of mine, but I became very, very close to him and his family.

“So if you fast forward ten, twelve years, Jana and I were talking about this ‘experiment in living’ idea, and Michael had recently got out of jail for, like, the third or fourth time. It had been in the paper about him getting busted with five hundred dollars of counterfeit bills in midtown. And I approached him and I said look, Michael, we are interested in seeing how you will respond to a situation where you’re in this apartment … and I told him all the parameters. He agreed to do it for two hundred dollars.”

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Jana and Michael during the ‘experiment in living’

Leo created Anne & Que, Pet Prisoner out of the remains of this experiment in living, including diaries in which she and Michael wrote freely about what was happening. (Leo and Williams have also created a book manuscript entitled Pet Prisoner, for which they have yet to find a publisher, out of their correspondence.) Anne and Que, played by Polly Korbel and Neruda Williams (awkwardly at first, when I saw it, but more and more vigorously as the show went along), share Jana and Michael’s race and gender — white and black, female and male, respectively. Anne talks a lot about helping others, whereas Que’s core motivations seem to be money and sex. You follow them around Leo’s apartment — physically, it feels like the low-rent, prison-themed, Chinatown equivalent of Sleep No More — and listen to them talk, moving out of the way if necessary, trying to digest the sometimes frighteningly academic, other times super colloquial words.

Leo’s play, like Jennifer Haley’s The Nether (which is about virtual child molestation and recently had an invigorating, much-talked-about run at the Lucille Lortel Theater), is designed to push viewers out of their comfort zone and provoke serious, sustained reflection. Surprisingly few people seem to have noticed the three performances in April — shock value isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be — but two more are planned for May 28 and 29. 

“If we say we are doing an alternative to prison for real people it’s going to seem totally crazy,” Leo said. “But actually we believe in it.”

Anne & Que, Pet Prisoner is not a perfect play, but I believe in the seriousness and the risk-taking behind it, and I think you should take a risk and go experience it.

Anne & Que, Pet Prisoner continues at Jana Leo’s apartment through May 29. Ticket holders meet at Invisible-Exports (89 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan). 

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