Bryonn Bain takes his story of racial profiling and wrongful arrest to a stage in Culver City
By Christina Campodonico
Bryonn Bain is the last person you’d expect to have an arrest record. He graduated from Columbia and attended Harvard Law. Yet during his second year of law school, Bain, a black man and son of Trinidadian immigrants, found himself in handcuffs and headed to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
More than 15 years later, Bain’s story of racial profiling by police still resonates and forms the basis of his one-man multimedia show, “Lyrics From Lockdown,” playing this weekend at The Actor’s Gang in Culver City. A special fundraiser and post-show discussion with Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle follows Friday’s performance.
The irony of Bain’s life-changing arrest is not lost on him, who quotes a joke his mother says to him: “You have the same degrees as Barack Obama. How come he end up in the White House and you end up in the jailhouse?” Bain actually has one more degree than the president — a master’s from New York University — yet on Oct. 18, 1999, Bain’s Ivy League pedigree meant little to police. To them only his skin color seemed to matter.
“We were the only black and brown people around,” recalls Bain, who was arrested along with his brother and cousin at 96th Street and Broadway on Manhattan’s Upper Westside. They had seen some men tossing bottles at a second-story window about a block away from the night club they had just left, but decided to head home on the subway to avoid the ruckus. They were stopped by NYPD officers in the subway station and frisked.
“They didn’t [believe] anything that we said,” Bain says of the police. “They threw us against a wall, accused me of stealing my laptop. They asked me why I had it. I said, ‘I’m a law student.’ They said, ‘Well, where do you go to law school.’… I said, ‘Harvard.’ The cops said, ‘How do you afford to go to a school like that? You’re on a [basket]ball scholarship?’ And I was like, ‘You know, actually there aren’t really ball scholarships for law school.’”
Bain continues: “Throwing me against the wall, throwing me against the squad car, throwing me in the car, putting me in handcuffs — when you’ve done nothing wrong and they treat you that way, it really challenged everything that I was learning at Harvard Law.”
Bain wrote about this experience in an article for The Village Voice. Titled “Walking While Black,” the article interprets the Bill of Rights from the perspective of a black man, provocatively using the n-word to make a point about the discriminatory nature of racial profiling in policing. By the standards of its day and ours, the polemical article went viral. Bain received 400 pages of mail after the article ran in 2000 and “60 Minutes” profiled him. Bain’s crusade against racial profiling came into the spotlight again when he was wrongfully thrown into jail a second time for crimes committed by a clever identity thief.
In “Lyrics from Lockdown,” produced by Harry Belafonte’s social justice organization sankofa.org and directed by Gina Belafonte, Bain draws on these experiences, weaving hip-hop, theatre, spoken word, calypso music, letters from Death Row inmate Nanon Williams and the voices of 40 different characters to both tell his story and examine the state of mass incarceration in America.
“I wanted to make sort of a new Caribbean gumbo — a gumbo of all these different elements — so when you leave the production you ask yourself, ‘Did I come out of a hip-hop concert, spoken-word poetry reading, a classical music recital? Was it a film? Was it a music video? What was it?’” says Bain of the show.
Bain developed the material for “Lyrics from Lockdown” through more than a decade of activist teaching at universities, grassroots organizing and theater workshops in prisons across America and their nearby communities. But it was today’s racially charged sociopolitical climate that convinced Bain that now was the right time for this production.
“There’s been a movement brewing in the last decade and a half to actually talk about what’s happening with mass incarceration, to talk about how mass incarceration is devastating our community, to talk about the way that police abuse, breach of rights and police terrorism is really taking lives and creating divisions in this country and continuing the legacy of oppression and racism and genocide and slavery that folks don’t like to talk about in this country,” says Bain.
He also believes that this social justice movement’s unprecedented access to mobile video technology has also made it possible for his story, which depends on video deejays and visuals, to be told in a way that was not possible five, 10 or 15 years ago.
“Everybody is a filmmaker,” says Bain. “People are capturing the brutality and terror of black and brown and working folks’ experience on the streets of this country and have since its inception, but have not been able to actually share that in a way that is given any credibility. Now it’s undeniable. You see Eric Garner on the iPhone. You see what happens in Ferguson on the iPhone. You see Tamir Rice, 12 years old, gunned down in the street.”
Bain hopes that by engaging with themes of police brutality through the very medium that has brought such violence to light that his play can open up a new conversation about America’s justice system and motivate people to action.
“The art gives us a way to get into conversation,” he says. “Hopefully we can all come to some deeper understanding about what’s happening in this country and what it’s going to take for us to move in another direction.”
“Lyrics from Lockdown” plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday (Feb. 11, 12 and 13) at The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Only Feb. 13 show tickets remain available. Tickets are $25 to $30 for the Feb. 11 performance; $100 for the fundraiser with Boyle on Feb. 12. Call (310) 838-4264 or visit theactorsgang.com.