Monday, April 7, 2014

"Did You Tell 'Em About the Skits...?"

Yes. In prison camp, we had to compose original skits -- and perform them. Three to five times a week. I shit you not.

Granted, it wasn't everybody. Just the 150-or-so of us in the RDAP unit. 

For many, it was a nightmare. But for a select few of us, it was a juicy opportunity for subversion; and for another handful of talented performers, it was their long-awaited star turn. I was one of the go-to writers in the unit; even if it wasn't my "Upbeat Group"'s turn on stage, I was sought out as a mercenary who could whip out a quick, 5-minute skit incorporating a little humor, a few RDAP principles (gratitude, humility, etc.) and do so in an hour or less. A few stamps, a couple packs of ramen or a snickers bar, and I was your huckleberry. As it were.

Even in FPC Duluth, where I was reminded every day to practice humility, it was tough to quell my creative ego. Many days, I cringed to see my not-so-carefully crafted words mangled by amateurish deliveries. Eventually, I learned: I figured out who the really good performers were I therefore saved my best stuff for the divas who wanted a vehicle -- or for my own group. I specialized in Seussian-style rhymes wherein I could drop the names of staff, inmates and counselors, walking the line a bit, but never quite crossing it. Inside jokes; double entendres that couldn't be proved. I had fun. I was good. But I was by no means the best; nor the most entertaining.

It probably shouldn't be surprising to find deviant -- or devious -- minds in prison camp. But I was outright flabbergasted to encounter some of the humorists I met there. They were devious and witty and literate -- and willing to use their talents in the pursuit of poking the institutional bear: something I was willing to toy with, but, for the most part, not actually do in light of the relatively-little time I was actually going to spend at FPC Duluth.

Wheels was one example of an exceptional prison camp humorist. Wheels had served a lot of time -- more than five years -- by the time I even showed up. A fellow -041er (Minnesotan), Wheels had started his bit with several months in a county-jail federal holding facility and then transfered to a low-security facility in Milan, Michigan, where he played tennis with Sam Waksal. He claimed that they transferred him so far from home because he fought them so hard at trial. Given what I've read and what I've heard from friends, he's probably right.  

He had a lot of pent up rage over his situation, but was also funny as hell. Plus he'd served long enough to feel pretty bulletproof about anything he might want to say. Wheels was our Kafka. The problem was he couldn't find a delivery system for his avant-garde, absurdist humor. Until Bob showed  up on the unit.

With Bob, Wheels had the perfect collaborator. The shit he though up was, on its own, subversively funny in a "Young Ones" sort of way. Often it made no sense at all; and yet even then, because of its nonsensical nature, was hilarious. Moreover, Bob was fearless on the stage -- even if it meant having to do some sort of punitive public apology; being remediated (losing some of the time off earned from participating in the RDAP program or getting thrown off the unit all together) -- which meant that Wheels had an actor to deliver his lines.

In one of his most memorable works, Wheels had an inmate stand at the podium reciting "Metamorphosis" by Wallace Stevens:

Yillow, yillow, yillow,
Old worm, my pretty quirk,
How the wind spells out
Sep – tem – ber….
Summer is in bones.
Cock-robin’s at Caracas.
Make o, make o, make o,
Oto – otu – bre.
And the rude leaves fall.
The rain falls. The sky
Falls and lies with worms.
The street lamps
Are those that have been hanged.
Dangling in an illogical
To and to and fro
Fro Niz – nil – imbo.
During the recital, Bob was backstage, playing the sound effect of a whining mosquito over the sound system, while using a length of twine to drag an empty box slowly across the stage behind the podium. At the same time, two other inmates acted out an argument behind the curtains.

It was ridiculous. Absurd. It made no sense. Much like the BoP.

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