Laugh Track: An Interview with William T. Oree

William T. Oree is serving twelve years to life at Attica Correctional Facility. He is the founder, writer, and editor of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, a self-published prison comedy magazine; his work has also been published in The Harvard Lampoon. He and his comedy writing partner are shopping a pilot script called PEN * PALS to production companies in Los Angeles. He is the inventor of “jailhouse comedy,” a blend of edgy, often raw humor with a little Shakespeare thrown in for good measure.

The Hedgehog Review: Obviously, your current situation informs much of your work. What do you use about prison in your comedy or theater performances?
William Oree: In the comedy genre I created, jailhouse, I have to be authentic. I have to tell the truth about the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of incarceration. I write and perform material that is raw, zany, and politically incorrect. This truth would speak volumes in any forum, but especially so in prison.

Tell us about some of the topics that you want to address in your comedy.
I have had great success cloaking highly charged political, social, racial, and sexual issues in comedy. I have addressed everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to prison rape. I don’t mock the seriousness of these issues. Instead, I expose the racial divide that is at the center of so much of what I treat comically.

For example, I wrote a sketch for the “Disturbed Recesses of My Mind” issue of The Harvard Lampoon (May 2016) in which I relate the travails of a man who was arrested for sucking out the fillings of all the fruit pies in his neighborhood supermarket. He was arrested and prosecuted but neither the judge nor the district attorney recognized that he had a sugar addiction. They saw his actions solely as a crime for which incarceration was the only recourse. Thus, the idea of addiction became neither a medical nor a health issue but a social problem for which the only solution was going to prison. To me, it is comically obvious that what this guy needs is treatment not a jail cell.

In that same issue of the Harvard Lampoon, I had a piece, “Save America: One Crackhead at a Time,” in which I challenged society to address substance abuse through a skit about a family who invites a crackhead into their home and he gradually begins to relieve them of all their creature comforts. The point is dressed in humor, but I wanted to shock the audience into recognizing that they can address society’s ills by being proactive, no matter how silly it might seem.

Are there any subjects that you just won’t touch? Why not?
My sister was murdered under conditions inaccurately described as “domestic violence.” I find no humor in violence against women and children. When it comes to interfering in other people’s relationships, my instinct tells me to get involved—I’ve had heated arguments with many other prisoners who disagree. Many simply turn a blind eye to domestic violence. Sad. At the same time, I have to add that many of my fellow inmates have said that they would interfere to help a woman or child being attacked by a “stranger.”

What was your life like growing up?
I’m not sure if I ever grew up. My childhood was marred by two suicide attempts, the murder of my teenage sister, living with alcoholic parents, being in the foster care system, and the lack of hot running water. Because of my family’s situation, I became a sort of family “hero,” developing certain survival skills and protecting my siblings from starvation, molestation, exploitation, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, and the shame associated with being the children of alcoholics. I became an unashamed liar and a thief, stealing to put food on the table. I essentially sacrificed my childhood for the well-being of my family.

How did you end up in Attica?
Two reasons: I escaped from a New York City jail where I was being held for trial. Also, I received a twelve-years-to-life sentence for being a habitual offender—in New York, three or more felony convictions qualifies you for a life sentence.

Did you do theater or stand-up on the outside? If so, in what sorts of circumstances?
My theatrical training started in my youth. As a child of alcoholic parents, I developed the ability to adopt different personas in order to protect my family. For example, when confronted with bill collectors and landlords I’d do all the talking for my parents. From an early age, I seemed to be able to make people trust me and I became a skilled liar. I discovered that adults will usually listen to a child’s pleas when they won’t listen to those of a grown-up. I recall practicing how to sound like a responsible, middle-class, educated adult.

By the time I got to high school, I was active in drama club. If I didn’t get a speaking part in the school play, I worked as a stagehand. I learned how to be a stage manager and lighting designer. After high school, I started a break-dancing troupe, the Max Factors. We later moved to the Boston/Cambridge area to perform. Break-dancing was new, and we made a name for ourselves performing at the many colleges and universities in that area. But break-dancing didn’t last too long and, lucky for me, I knew how to network. Through my connections, I found odd jobs at local college drama departments and I worked as a lighting assistant and stage manager assistant. I eventually received a stage management internship at American Repertory Theater, but I walked off the job after insisting their techniques were inferior. Still, I made friends with a movie actor there who worked as an understudy for the role of stand-up comic. He invited me for drinks at open-mic night at a local comedy club. A few drinks later, I was onstage telling the story of my life and making people laugh. Unfortunately, when I returned to the club the next week, I was unprepared and failed to get even a giggle.

Who were your role models? How were you influenced by these people?
One was a police officer who taught me how to act my age—I was twelve—when I was trying to act like a thirty-something. Also, there was the founder of the Fortune Society who taught me to create an opportunity where there were none. [Since 1967, The Fortune Society has worked to assist ex-offenders as they return to society.] And there was the neighborhood crackhead who taught me that my life should not be defined by how many times I’d be knocked down, but by how many times I get up. Last but not least, a stand-up comedian who taught me to write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

You have said “to be an effective comedian, I have to meet the audience where they are.” Can you say a little more about this?
To be effective in comedy, you must know your audience. My audience is literally a tough crowd. Murderers, drug lords, thugs, and lost souls. Because my audience is in a state of psychological, sociological, and physical captivity, I have to craft my sets accordingly. I can’t simply tell jokes.

You can never be sure of what will work with a jailhouse audience. If the day before, the correctional staff assaulted a well-loved and respected inmate, the mood of the population could be restless and belligerent. Part of my craft is knowing how to elucidate the sordidness of daily prison life with humor. Truly, a tough task! I have to mix it up—a sketch here, a narrative there, followed by some Shakespeare, or something polemical. Because my audience is fluid, I have to move like water!

When you specialize in jailhouse comedy, there’s an abundance of material all around. I often say, jokingly, that I perform under duress—you can’t afford to bomb before an Attica audience. These guys have killed for less! But seriously.… In my comedy, I can address many distasteful prison conditions: strip-frisking, cavity searches—I’ve gotten a lot of laughs on that one, believe it or not! The jailhouse brand of humor emerged from just this kind of raw and edgy material.

As a performer, how do you keep people interested in what you are doing?
I have discovered that the average time a prisoner will engage with my routine is between five and fifteen minutes. That’s why I never lead with my best stuff. I often employ a strategy that works up the audience by sprinkling my sets with diatribes about current social or political topics. Polemics are alive and well in prison. This is often the means by which prisoners relieve their aggression in a safe and healthy manner. If all else fails, I pull out a few monologues by Shakespeare—you’d be amazed how much prisoners appreciate iambic pentameter. Plus, peel back the layers on just about any Shakespeare character and you’ll discover a polemical impetus.

In your work in Attica, you depend on collaboration, with fellow inmates and colleagues on the outside. What sort of collaborations have you had with people on the outside?
I collaborate with anyone willing to match my commitment to performance. At present, I am working with another prisoner who has started a performing artist program in another facility. He is awesome! I’m also working with a volunteer community college professor and the artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival [an opera festival in Cooperstown, New York] to make Attica’s theater arts program a success. The Glimmerglass opera company has performed twice for the prisoners in Attica and I think this led to the prison administration’s approval of our performing arts project. My writing partner, Sierra Katow, is a Harvard graduate who appeared on the NBC reality television show Last Comic Standing in 2015. I wrote to her out of the blue and she wrote back, requesting samples of my work. Today, we write sitcom pilots together.

Tell us about your theater arts program at Attica. What was the origin of the program and its goals?
The Glimmerglass opera performances at Attica helped the prison administration recognize the value of a theatrical arts program. But I also campaigned for three years to get the program approved. During that time, I performed Shakespeare at as many inmate events as I could. Finally, I became recognized and acknowledged for my dramatic abilities. I think it helped to be able to show the administration that I had the promise of assistance from a fellow inmate and a drama professor and Glimmerglass’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello.

We recently received approval from Attica administrators to move ahead with the program. I have many goals for the program, but my primary objective is to establish an empathetic and caring community through theater arts. In a healthier environment, therapeutic ideas, such as conflict resolution, just work better. I have seen countless instances of how drama can be successful in helping people explore personal issues.

Recently, you performed Shakespeare at an Attica event. What was that like?
That performance took place at the Attica Lifers Organization picnic. I performed Mark Antony’s speech over the body of Julius Caesar, beginning with “But yesterday the word of Caesar might / Have stood against the world. Now lies he there, / And none so poor to do him reverence…. ” and going on to “Oh, now you weep, and, I perceive, you feel / The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.” I became so caught up that I actually had tears in my eyes. But it was wonderful—the prisoners loved it, the outside guest loved it. Even the corrections officers applauded—that was a first. I was just happy to be able to get through the scene without having the white bedsheets fall from my shoulders!

You are working with a partner on the outside to develop a cable show. Are there any developments on that project that you would like to share?
My comedy writing partner has decided to shop our PEN*PALS sitcom pilot script to a few production companies in Los Angeles. While I do a lot of writing, Sierra does all the heavy lifting. I am honored and blessed to have a professional partnership with her. She also edits my self-published magazine called The Prisoner’s Lampoon which specializes in jailhouse comedy. Before we send out any edition of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, we send out samples to introduce its rather unorthodox content. We do this because my work has been labeled “objurgating”—to which I respond that an objurgating title obfuscates the obstreperous nature of jailhouse comedy.

How have you found that performing changes the discussion when it comes to certain issues? Have there been times when your approach seemed to go nowhere? Why do you think that was?
Some time back, I wrote a dramatic piece about Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. In the piece, I reversed the roles, having George Zimmerman in a hoodie walking through Trayvon Martin’s neighborhood. This went nowhere. Naturally, I knew that in a correctional facility where half the population is black and more than a third Latino a subject like this might be too delicate to address at all. But I wondered: What if I had written this piece as a comedy sketch? Would it have been more successful?

In the final analysis, we are all prisoners in one form or another. Whether in our careers, in personal relationships, or in our ties to the “good life” (home, car, education, family, financial security)—we believe we have freedom of choice, but do we really?

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Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian Pastors, and Purpose

Princeton Theological Seminary library.  Billy via Flickr.

Princeton Theological Seminary library. Billy via Flickr.

Last week, Princeton Theological Seminary announced it was rescinding its decision to bestow an award upon Presbyterian pastor and author Tim Keller. The seminary’s president explained that Keller’s leadership role in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America was at odds with the school’s mission. Keller’s denomination, unlike the seminary’s own Presbyterian Church (USA), “prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.” He also emphasized that the school’s reversal in no way undermined its commitment to open dialogue—the award comes with a lecture, which Keller was still invited to to deliver: “We are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry.”

Keller is in some ways an unlikely candidate for headline-generating controversy. He’s more known for writing readable books, ministering to Millennials in New York City, and engaging in dialogues with atheists on college campuses. Last year, he and I coauthored an article that argues, among other things, that we can and must figure out a way to live peaceably in the midst of our deep differences, and that we can treat each other charitably across those differences. Those ideas emerge out of the intersection of Keller’s approach to pluralism as a pastor and my academic framework of confident pluralism.

One of the core commitments of confident pluralism is that the First Amendment should permit private associations—including private institutions of higher education—to follow their own norms absent extraordinarily compelling governmental interests. Since interests of such magnitude are not implicated here, Princeton Seminary can do whatever it wants. It could give or not give the award to Keller. It could—as it did—offer and then rescind the award for just about any reason. It could—as it did not—disinvite Keller to deliver his lecture. Still, this whole episode raises questions, not only about the purpose of Princeton Theological Seminary, but whether or not the school has adequately articulated its sense of purpose. Continue reading

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The Worth of “Useless” Knowledge

Aerial view of Bell Labs Holmdel Complex. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Aerial view of Bell Labs Holmdel Complex. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The history of science shows that curiosity, imaginative tinkering, dead-ends, randomness, and serendipity all play an outsized role in gaining insight into the natural world. The same can be said for the social sciences. Real insight into the human condition or our current predicament often comes in mysterious ways, and may involve as much rediscovery as discovery.

Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has written a companion essay for Princeton University Press’s republication of IAS founder Abraham Flexner’s famous article “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Following in Flexner’s footsteps, Dijkgraaf makes an important case for the social and scientific value of “unobstructed curiosity” and the need to resist the growing pressure to prioritize “short-term goals” and direct all effort to “more immediate problems.”

While demands for accountability, usefulness, and specific “deliverables” of economic or social relevance differ in the natural and human sciences, they foster the same tendencies. From my experience in the social sciences, three such tendencies stand out, and each now has a life of its own. Continue reading

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Introducing the Spring Issue:
The Post-Modern Self

Untitled

Untitled by Didier Gaillard; private collection, Bridgeman images.

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote the British author L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between. But almost before Hartley’s words acquired the status of proverb, something curious happened. Thanks largely to the dizzying pace of change that technology has made almost routine, the present itself became a foreign country—alien, but in the most deceptive of ways. In this curious present, we discern only with difficulty how things that seem familiar and fixed are actually, upon closer investigation, strange and unsettled. One day, for example, we think the reality of “reality TV” is anything but real; the next day we discover that it most shockingly is—and maybe has been for much longer than we realized. If we have not quite arrived at Orwellian Newspeak, in which war is peace and love is hate, then we are somewhere not far off. In this here and now, where meanings and norms shift shapes right before our eyes, we are strangers in, and to, our own time.

That strangeness is in no respect more unsettling than in relation to the very selves we are becoming. Every individual self is unique, of course, but all selves are also inescapably shaped by beliefs, norms, ideals, and meanings that make up the totality of a specific culture at a specific time. Until now at least, those underlying and defining elements of a culture benefited from a certain stability—or at least the appearance of such amid what might be described, more precisely, as gradually changing continuity. In the increasingly alien present, however, the very character of our culture (some would even say our anti-culture) is the absence of such stability and continuity, both having been displaced by the discontinuous, disruptive, and destabilizing force of change, a force that is now celebrated, and even idolized, for its own sake.

So, then, what sort of selves are we becoming in this age that we call, for lack of a better word, post-modern? That is the question our contributors explore in  The Post-Modern Self, the theme of our spring issue.

We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with the following two:

For subscribers, the complete issue is available now, whether in print or ePub form. In our thematic section, the essays include David Bosworth’s “Knowing Together: The Emergence of the Hive Mind,” Wilfred M. McClay’s “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Mary Townsend’s “The Walking Wounded,” and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s “The New Old Ways of Self-Help.” Our non-thematic essays range from Nadav Samin on jihadist fiction and Regina Mara Schwartz on love and justice to Chad Wellmon on the fate of general education. We also review a series of key recent titles in our book review section.

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Beyond the Legality of Executive Orders

A young Japanese-American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A young Japanese American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

This Sunday marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, the order authorized the secretary of war and military commanders to establish “exclusion zones,” which ultimately led to the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these actions in a series of decisions culminating in Korematsu v. United States.

We are now in the middle of a heated national debate over another executive order: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” signed by President Donald J. Trump. The two orders are not the same in scope or consequence. But they do bear some similarities. Neither Executive Order 9066 nor Trump’s immigration order singles out a group of people by name. Yet both orders make possible discriminatory action.

As much as I disagree with its substance and symbolism, many of the constitutional arguments raised against Trump’s executive order strike me as unpersuasive. The order does not flagrantly overstep the bounds of executive power as they are currently understood; nor is the purported Establishment Clause challenge as obvious as some commentators have suggested. (I find Michael McConnell’s analysis of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion closest to the mark.)

But whether or not an executive order is constitutional is not the only question that can be raised about it or even necessarily the most important. The actions of our president—particularly those formalized and ritualized as executive orders—have expressive as well as legal consequences. They tell us something about who we are and who we should be as a people. From this perspective, the historical connection to Executive Order 9066 reminds us of the dangers of fear and the human toll that can too easily result from that fear. Continue reading

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Mom, Apple Pie—and Lady Gaga

YouTube still of Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI performance

What was edgy about Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl show? Was it singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a protest song that as Vanity Fair noted includes verses such as “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me?” Or was it, as the New York Times observes, dropping in a line from the Pledge of Allegiance? Not really. What made Gaga’s much-anticipated performance so surprising was its wholesomeness.

Perched on what appeared to be the upper edge of Houston’s NRG Stadium in a two-piece silver body suit and boots, her face adorned by a cat-eye mask of jewels, Lady Gaga gave a show that was unabashed Americana. Her first words were “God bless America” from “America the Beautiful” followed by a few lines from Guthrie’s classic and then this line from the Pledge of Allegiance, “One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” That last with a winning smile before plunging to a tower on the stage below.

Amid smoke and blasts of fire, she declared to cheers from the crowd “I wanna hold ’em like they do in Texas” from “Poker Face.”  Next up was the massive hit “Born This Way,” a self-esteem anthem that serves as the unofficial theme song for the gay community. Amid the checklist of identity groups is the line, “I’m beautiful in my way / ’cause God makes no mistakes.” After two more songs, she slowed it down with “Million Reasons,” catching her breath and working the crowd with the assurance that “we’re here to make you feel good.” In this country music-tinged ballad, Gaga calls on the Lord in prayer, asking to be shown the way. At one point, she sent a spontaneous shout-out to her parents—“Hey, Dad! Hi, Mom!” The dancers reappeared, now in modified football gear, and parted for Lady Gaga who had exchanged the silver jacket for a white, shoulder-pad-like top. “The Super Bowl is what champions are made of!” she shouted before launching into the show’s finale “Bad Romance,” every good girl’s dream of love with a bad boy. Climbing up a ramp, she threw down the mic—as close as a singer can come perhaps to smashing a perfectly good guitar—caught a football and jumped out of sight.

Sure, there were the usual girls-just-want-to-have-fun sentiments. There were energetic dancers, outlandish costumes, and some spectacular aerial drone footage (a half time show first). Especially noteworthy were the dancers: not all had athletic physiques nor was everyone wearing the same costume and makeup. Gaga’s songs are jejune at best, but she is a diligent singer with real natural gifts. (Her vocal coach, Don Lawrence, described her in a recent Wall Street Journal article as “the most spot-on singer I think I’ve ever worked with.”)

Clocking in at around thirteen minutes, the Super Bowl show was much shorter than a standard concert, but the intensity of the event, the expectations—will she say something political?, and the pressure from the network, the NFL, and viewers made it a demanding performance. How much was Gaga paid? Nothing. The league pays only for expenses and production costs. Of course, the chance to perform before more than 100 million viewers is enough to turn the head of any superstar.

How refreshing that Lady Gaga simply performed. She didn’t use her time in front of the cameras to be more than what we wanted her to be. (To be clear, Gaga has used her fame to make political statements as when she donned the notorious meat dress in 2010 to protest the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy.) Her message of positivity and inclusivity—one about which she has been single-minded since the beginning of her career—tempered the Super Bowl hype with a surprising element of humility. For what must be scores of people—dancers, musicians, production crew, personal staff, accountants, seamstresses—Lady Gaga is the reason they have a paycheck. The fact that she can express gratitude and call on something—or someone—greater than herself is not what we’ve come to expect from celebrities. All of this is not to say that Gaga is without ego or foible. No one becomes an entertainer for reasons less than a towering need for adulation and fame.

But her sense of the occasion was exactly right. Her understanding of the influence of a sports event pop music show on the fate of nations—precisely zero—gave everyone a chance to enjoy the spectacle and to appreciate her formidable self-discipline. If Gaga’s Super Bowl performance was in essence one big commercial for herself (and Pepsi), so be it. What can be more American?

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Illiberalism Rising

Death of Socrates, Daniel Chodowiecki. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Death of Socrates, Daniel Chodowiecki. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America. White nationalists…are celebrating.”—Senator Harry Reid

“Political correctness is the biggest issue facing America today. Even Trump has just barely faced up to it.”—David Gelernter, Weekly Standard.

Both the left and the right warn of a growing illiberalism. Continue reading

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Support Your Local Cat Café

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency.

Before visiting Los Angeles a few months ago, I did what I always do when planning a trip to a major city: I made reservations at a cat café. For the uninitiated, cat cafés are small businesses that offer patrons the opportunity to admire and play with domestic cats. The cats come to the cat café from local shelters, and if a guest and a cat hit it off, the cat can be adopted. All the while, guests sip coffee and munch pastries (which usually have to be brought to the café from separate facilities due to health code restrictions on the preparation of food in the presence of animals). Reservations are necessary because having too many humans in the café at the same time could be stressful for the cats.

Cat cafés started in East Asia and have spread to large cities in Europe and the United States. After having previously visited Meow Parlour in New York City and Crumbs & Whiskers in Washington, D.C., I eagerly went to Crumbs & Whiskers’s new Los Angeles café on my first full day in town. Waiting inside was just what awaited me in New York and Washington: a little slice of heaven for a dyed-in-the-fur cat fanatic like myself. Continue reading

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