Bryonn Bain’s amazingly true story needs to be told. Wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit due to a frightening combination of mistaken identity and racism, Lyrics From Lockdown is a haunting and beautifully written tale of Bain’s incarceration and transformation into a leading prison activist. The performance at the National Black Theater this past Saturday July 21, was filled with folks who had to come see and hear for themselves, some for the second or third time, the play which serves as a testament to Bain’s incredible journey.
Director Mei Ann Teo does an impeccable job of establishing a driving pace of the play after Bain seduces you into the top of the show with sweet sounding vocals, “so the story goes,” he tells us. Like a master storyteller he reminds us that “things are not always what they seem.” The momentum of his story pulls you right along with is. Though it was difficult to keep up with his rapid fire lyrics at times, his physical presence on stage powerfully recreated his emotional responses.
Spoken word as a medium is now almost a household phrase. Well, depends on the household. In terms of the theatrical tradition, the elevated language of verse that we inherited from the Greeks and Shakespeare is no where more alive and well than within the context of contemporary spoken word and hip hop theater. The audience’s experience is not just one of anticipated spectacle or narrative arch, but of the surprising and enriching quality of the text itself as it is so articulately delivered. Understanding this power, Bain’s lyrics do not disappoint, and his words wash over you like a mighty wave. He even references Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be,” given new meaning within the context of his story, and engages the audience in a call and response, “when I say spoken, somebody say word!”
Bain intersperses letters from Nanon Williams, another poet wrongfully accused and sitting on death row. Nanon’s perspective provides a tragic contrast to Bain’s but turns up the heat on the imperative to reform the prison systems. The play points a finger at those people who benefit from the system as it currently exists, but also highlights the unsustainability of it. The play goes further to suggest the real roots of the issue are systemic racism and refers to the “cage called flesh,” as the real confinement. For Nanon and Bain, poetry represents their call to action, their hope and as Nanon puts it, “poetry is all the pieces of who we are, broken but glued back together.”
I hope this play continues to tour schools, prisons, and theaters alike as it has been and expands its reach to the folks that need to bear witness to the injustice and the triumph of Bain’s story, and the critical message it delivers.