Artist-activist Bryonn Bain’s “Lyrics From Lockdown” advances the dialogue about mass incarceration

By Bliss Bowen

Bryonn Bain was wrongly jailed for a crime he had witnessed

“Back by popular demand!” Bryonn (pronounced BREE-ahn) Bain enthuses with an easy laugh. He’s referring to his widely praised one-man show “Lyrics From Lockdown,” which has returned to The Actors’ Gang theater after a successful engagement last year. The hip-hop and calypso-infused multimedia production, which confronts mass incarceration with the urgency of this morning’s headlines, was inspired by Bain’s wrongful detention in October 1999.

The son of Trinidadian immigrants who instilled him with a vigorous work ethic, Bain was class president at Columbia University, earned a master’s at NYU, and was a second-year law student at Harvard when he was held overnight in jail, along with his brother and cousin, for a crime they witnessed someone else commit.

Bain’s clean record did not impress arresting officers; his race did. The case was eventually dismissed, and Bain successfully sued the New York Police Department and penned a searing essay, “Walking While Black,” that Village Voice published in 2000. He subsequently channeled his outrage into poetry (he’s a Nuyorican Grand Slam champ) and activism; he lectured at colleges and prisons, gave a TED talk, authored books (including 2013’s “The Ugly Side of Beautiful: Rethinking Race and Prisons in America”), and contributed to BET’s “My Two Cents.”

“Lyrics From Lockdown” had its world premiere in Harlem in 2013. Directed by Gina Belafonte and executive produced by Harry Belafonte, it’s a continually evolving piece in which Bain portrays 40 characters, including his parents, with musical backing from cellist Isaiah Gage, beatboxer Click the Supa Latin and bassist John B. Williams. The only thing that remains essentially unchanged is the libretto — what he calls “the actual poetry of it.” Improvisational moments and unexpected audience interactions get braided into performances, and the production’s relevance is deepened by post-show talkbacks with guests like “Fruitvale Station” writer/director Ryan Coogler, Actors’ Gang founder Tim Robbins, and organizations such as the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

It feeds an interactive loop of creativity and activism for Bain. The show brought him to UCLA, where last fall he developed a course, “Narratives of Change,” with women prisoners at the California Institute for Women. He continues to work with them, preparing a prison-set “hip-hop theater remix” of “The Wiz” he’ll direct in March — all while freshening “Lyrics From Lockdown” with references to current events. Working to connect it to what’s happening in the world is “the only way,” he says, “it can remain a living, breathing production.”

When “Lyrics From Lockdown” premiered, police brutality had entered the national discussion but not mass incarceration. Now Ava Duvernay’s documentary, “13th,” is nominated for an Oscar, but are people really engaging with the issue yet?

It’s the first time it’s actually been part of a presidential election. Hillary Clinton was forced by Bernie Sanders to address it. On the other side of the aisle, Mr. 45, as he’s being called [chuckles], actually talked about bringing back stop-and-frisk — which I think is the link between the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration and policing. How are prisons filled? By foot soldiers on the beat — police officers. The connection has been made. Long before the film, long before Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” we had Mumia Abu-Jamal and Angela Davis and countless others incarcerated — men and women who’ve been sounding the alarm for many years. Finally we’ve reached a tipping point and there’s a broader public conversation.

Artists get stereotyped as self-centered and unrealistic, yet it’s often artists who “report” first on social justice issues. Do you consider shows like this an avenue for people to access information they aren’t getting in the media?

Absolutely. We’re trying to transform the culture. I learned from studying the law at the oldest law school in the country that you can change the law, you can change the legislation, you can change the policy — but if you do that and don’t also change the hearts and minds of people, then you’ve gotta send in the National Guard so little black girls can go to school. You know what I’m saying? We’ve got to really work on reaching the hearts and minds of folks, and that’s what art and culture do better than anything else. Artists don’t have a monopoly on being narcissistic and vain [laughs], because there’s certainly no shortage of that on Wall Street [laughs]. Art highlights this other piece of our humanity that should be in business schools, law schools and journalism schools as well: the imagination. It reminds us that there is something else that’s possible.

In your “Walking While Black” essay, you mention a jail officer who “realized how absurd our ordeal was and treated us with the utmost respect.” Have any other officers reached out to you or attended performances?

Not only that, we had a warden! [Laughs] A warden came to talk to us and confirmed — and this is one thing folks don’t talk about too often — these systems predate anyone living today. We inherited these systems. Wardens, police officers, correctional officers will tell you we’re operating within a system that dehumanizes even them. They’re looking for ways to be part of the solution and not part of the problem as well.

We call out the worst aspects of white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy — these systems, genocide and slavery, that are as much a part of this country’s history as its rich tradition of democracy and freedom. We also recognize there are allies found in every walk of life. … There are guards who will tell you, ‘Listen, we want help,’ to try to end
the reality that the oldest prison for women in California has a suicide rate five times the national average. COs and guards need support to get off the conveyor belt of the trauma they’ve been thrown into, as much as the incarcerated men and women and children need support to figure out a way to end the systemic violence that’s being perpetrated against our families and communities, in prisons and on the streets with the tradition of police abuse that we’re witnessing through cellphone cameras on a regular basis.

When “60 Minutes” interviewed you in 2001, you told Mike Wallace you wanted to be “an organizer, an activist, an educator, an artist” but that politics turned you off “because everybody’s afraid to tell the truth.” Has anything changed?

[Laughs] There was no such thing as “alternate truth” or “alternative facts” — we just called it lies, right? [Laughs] A lot of us are yearning for truth, so it may be easier for charlatans to dress up lies in the bravado of truth-telling. …

I think what’s been done in the dark will come to the light. The coalitions that are being built right now will bring forth a new day and a different kind of order — not the Nixon/Trump order, but a new era. Out of the devastating Bush years came Obama; I think out of the Trump years something even greater will be born.

“Lyrics From Lockdown” continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and 8 p.m. Saturdays through Feb. 25 at The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $34.99 on Fridays and Saturdays. Thursdays are pay-what-you can; just show up before 7:30 p.m. to get on the list. Call (310) 838-4264 or visit LyricsFromLockdown.com.