‘Sing Sing’ Cast Reunites Behind Bars in Emotional Homecoming

Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin is standing inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility for the first time since he was incarcerated here 12 years ago. In this very chapel, he reminisces, he once sold drugs — a backup plan for when the yard was closed.

Not many men pine to return to the prisons in which they toiled away years of their life. Maclin, 58, lived inside Sing Sing for 15 years. But on this day, he’s buoyant.

“I got a purpose now,” Maclin says.

M.” In the film, which opens July 12 in theaters, Colman Domingo stars as an incarcerated man who helps lead a theater program for others at Sing Sing. Together, they find community and catharsis through theater.

The program is real: Rehabilitation Through the Arts, or RTA, is a nonprofit founded by Katherine Vockins at Sing Sing in 1996. Many of its former participants make up the cast of “Sing Sing” alongside professional actors like Domingo and Paul Raci. Maclin plays himself – a hard, muscle-bound character whose talent for shake-downs in the yard, it turns out, transfers remarkably well to Shakespeare.

“On stage,” Maclin says, “I got permission to do anything.”

As movie premieres go, the one for “Sing Sing” at Sing Sing was about as poignant as it gets. The film was screened above the stage where RTA performed its first show for an audience half civilian, half incarcerated men in navy green jumpsuits. For the formerly incarcerated actors in the film, returning to Sing Sing was an emotional homecoming. They brought a message of hope and healing that they, themselves, are still trying to live up to.

Plaques outside the walls of Sing Sing — a high-walled citadel of incarceration beside which trains carrying commuters pass regularly — tout its rich history. This is where phrases long ubiquitous in movies — “Up the river,” “the Big House” — come from. Historically, Sing Sing — where, among many others, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed — has loomed in the public imagination more as a symbol of harsh, Victorian age-style punishment than soulful rehabilitation.

On a sweltering day with the sun still high above the Hudson, two former RTA members — Lorenzo Chambers, 33, and Jose Robles, 64 — stood outside the prison walls, handing out water bottles. In his 35-plus years in prison, Robles first began building sets for RTA productions and then became a performer.

“You learn more about yourself than you do the play, you know?” says Robles.

Inside the first gate, Sean Dino Johnson, a founding member of RTA and a co-star in “Sing Sing,” sits in the shade, cringing a little each time the gate opened and closed. Johnson, 59, served 22 years in prison. When he was first approached about RTA nearly two decades ago, he was a tad skeptical.

“I said, ‘You want me to get up there in tights and do ‘To be or not to be’?” recalls Johnson, grinning. “Where’s the punchline at?”

But Johnson, despite his doubts, gave it a go and soon found that he had “got the bug.” Looking inward as an actor brought him an inner peace that had previously eluded him.

“That was my first understanding of what a community is,” says Johnson as he makes his way up the hill to the theater.

While the cast members and others mill about in the chapel, the film’s director and co-writer, Greg Kwedar, eyes the next-door theater nervously. “Sing Sing” was largely shot at a decommissioned prison upstate, so this was a moment he had long awaited.

“I’ve imagined what this theater would look like for eight years,” Kwedar says. “This is the most important audience in the world for us. I just hope it’s honest.”

“When we walk out of here, I hope the air feels a little different for those of us who are going home,” adds Kwedar. “And I’m highly aware that half of the audience will be going back to their cells.”

Since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Sing Sing” has been widely celebrated. A24 acquired it soon after its premiere. In March, it won the festival favorite audience award at SXSW.

The emotional response “Sing Sing” provokes runs two ways, eradicating some of the divisions that exist between those on the inside and those on the outside. For the RTA alumni, it’s a rare platform to show that what they’re capable of. For civilians less acquainted with the oft-ignored lives of the incarcerated, it’s a window into their humanity.

“You don’t feel as separated from the world,” says Shaytuan Breazil, a 32-year-old serving a 12-year sentence who was helping to serve snacks for visitors.

When RTA started, performances were only for fellow incarcerated men. Its leaders, like director Brent Buell (played by Raci in the film), would make videotapes for their families to see. What began with modest expectations grew and grew. “I thought I’d come up here and direct — I love directing,” says Buell. “I had no idea I would come in and make the friendships of my life.”

More than 1,000 people have since passed through RTA, which is now in eight prison facilities. It plans to expand to two more in September. The U.S. Department of Justice has found that within one year of release, 43% of formerly incarcerated people are rearrested. Among RTA alumni, that number is less than 3%.

Jon-Adrian “JJ” Velazquez served more than 23 years in Sing Sing before he was granted clemency for his wrongful conviction by former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He has worked closely with RTA and appears in “Sing Sing.”

“The most effective way to change somebody,” says Velazquez, “is to believe in them.”

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