This article was originally featured in the Columbia Spectator
By: Sarah Shapiro
As viewers filter into the Forum, footage rolls on an imposing screen, and actors ready themselves for the show. Some review scripts or test microphones while others simply sit and breathe. Many are formerly incarcerated, preparing to immerse themselves in yet another story of the injustices of the American mass-incarceration system. It is clear from the moment the performers enter the space that this is less of a traditional theater performance, but rather, the sharing of an experience. They are concerned not with excessive performativity but instead with the breaking of barriers between life and art.
On Nov. 14, the Columbia Center for Justice presented “Echoes of Attica,” featuring actors without costumes—only scripts in hand—and projected collages of mid-20th-century social figures in place of a set. It began as a touring production at Wesleyan University and was brought to Columbia by the Center for Justice, whose mission is to “reduce the nation’s reliance on incarceration and criminalization through advancing new approaches to safety and justice centered on prevention.”
The staged reading chronicled the Attica Prison Uprising, a 1971 revolt in upstate New York against the racism, loss of agency, and torture inmates suffered at the hands of New York State Police, as well as their ensuing refusal to provide medical assistance to wounded prisoners. “Echos of Attica” was told through music, poetry, and dramatic readings of witness accounts, chronicling the lead-up to the event, the bloodshed that unfolded, the subsequent media cover-up, and the lingering effects of the massacre. The performance is especially pertinent as Rikers Island faces a federal receivership by the Justice Department. Far from an episode of the past, the play sought to bring light to the persistence of racism within the carceral system, offering this powerful statement:
“Attica is every prison, and every prison is Attica.
If the audience is ever tempted to disengage, this motif is repeated to remind them of the immorality and naïveté of doing so. While there is sufficient documentation of the Attica uprising, the play suggests that simply ingesting faraway and often inaccurate accounts is not enough to keep these events from fading into the back pages of a history textbook. The performers’ retellings gave new life to documentary footage, memorialized the victims, reminded viewers of the work still to come, and reanimated for one hour the everpresent pain and hope felt by the revolutionaries of Attica.
The performers delivered each quotation according to their own interpretation of the events, recontextualizing the history. Dinny Risri Aletheiani, a professor from Yale, entranced the audience with a warm voice that disguised the violence of her speech. Throughout the production, she maintained an almost ethereal demeanor, rising slowly from her imposing chair center stage and whispering atrocities through a tired, knowing stare, enunciating calmly and directly to the viewers:
“In 1970, the National Guard shot dead four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio,” Aletheiani said. “In 1971, the National Guard and the state police shot dead 29 men protesting the inhumane prison conditions at Attica state.”
The dialogue was intentionally blunt. Yet, Aletheiani’s spoken lullaby lent an eerie continuance to these cold factualities, allowing them to slip into your lungs like winter air before you notice the burn.
Other cast members took a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the often disturbing material. As the voices of the reacting institutions, Dario Peña and Eddie Torres spat their lines with a cartoonish sneer, conjuring memories of a vile Richard Nixon, in addition to a hoard of indifferent news anchors. Their humor made the more outrageous dialogue seem sarcastic, giving the audience a chance to digest the Kafkaesque nightmare of an antagonistic bureaucracy beneath a veil of laughter.
“To Director Hoover: Extremist matters! Students Association State University of New York sponsored a program regarding the Attica riot. Speakers were David Dellinger and John Froines of the Chicago Seven! Ha!” Peña warbled.
While not a musical in the traditional sense, music was nonetheless used to represent the individual characters of Attica, ensuring that they would not be forgotten by a generalized history. Musician and activist BL Shirelle performed an original rap from the perspective of the revolutionaries, stating that she felt “compelled and honored to amplify their voices.” One particularly impactful performance came courtesy of Simply Naomi, whose ethereal voice lingered sadly on slow notes in her rendition of “Stormy Weather,” the only song that survivor Frank Smith would listen to as a momentary relief from his trauma:
“All I do is pray that the lord will let me walk in that sun once more / Can’t go on / Everything I had is gone / Stormy weather … Keeps raining all the time.”
As she floated across the front row, extending a tired grin and a warm hand to rapt viewers, her vibrato seemed to wash over them in waves. She sang with reverence, like Smith was in the room with her, and so the audience felt him too, for a moment truly understanding his pain and determination to endure.
The performance concluded with a Q&A session, where actors shared their personal connections to the project and the reasons they chose to get involved. Many audience members used the opportunity to spread awareness for their own organizations, including the Alliance of Families for Justice, which is working to shut down Attica Correctional Facility, which remains in operation. Others were moved to share their own stories of incarceration, including Carlos Roche, a witness to the uprising in 1971.
“This is the 51st anniversary of the Attica rebellion, and it was like yesterday,” Roche said “Things are still going on all over that went on in Attica in 1971. It affects everybody. It affects you, me. … Watch the play, and enjoy yourselves, but believe me, it’s very, very relevant.”
It was clear that everybody left the space changed. Some grew closer to their loved ones, while others were confronted with the dark underbelly of mass incarceration for the first time. In the end, “Echoes of Attica” provided a platform for people to remember what they have lost, to recall why they fight, and to appreciate the strength of the community they have found.