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North Carolina “Blue Banner”

North Carolina “Blue Banner”

by Garret Kilgore

"Thousand Kites" unveils the oppressive reality of the U.S.  prison
system and its effect on prisoners, guards and their families in the
emotional production presented by Theatre UNC Asheville Stages.

“In the play ‘Thousand Kites,’ a kite represents a message or
a letter going in or coming out of a prison,” said Scott Walters,
associate professor of drama. “The ideas and renowned work of Appalshop
show the true devastation caused by prison construction, and the
emotional and political toll burdened on rural communities, prisoners,
guards and the families of both.”

Appalshop, a nonprofit-multi-disciplinary arts and education
center, based in Whitesburg, Ky., wrote the play and sent scripts to
universities. Appalshop strives to artistically expose community
problems through original films, radio, photography, books and
spoken-word. They expose destructive problems facing the nation,
according to Casey Morris, prisoner in the production.

“This play is a little different than most,” Morris said. “All
of our lines are not directed towards actors in the play they are a
projected meaningful message for the audience. The play works on a
whole different perspective than most. Everything that is written in
the play, are words taken straight from the mouths of many families,
prison guards, prisoners and communities. We are acting real life.”

In 1999, Appalshop with the collaboration of DJs Amelia Kirby
and Nick Szuberla, began the idea of exposing America’s prison crisis
through a hip-hop radio show near the Supermax prison Wallens Ridge
State Prison in Whitesburg, Ky., according to Appalshop.

“Through Kirby and Szuberlas’ radio show, called ‘Holler to
the Hood,’ poems and letters to and from the inmates of the nearby
Wallens Ridge State Prison, as well as letters from local families and
community members began flooding in,” Walters said. “They pulled all of
this information together and created a play from the actual works of
inmates, guards and their families.”

Scott Walters works as a teacher in a N.C. division of prisons.
He teaches a drama production course and a literature course to inmates
convicted of everything from armed robbery and murder to sexual
assault. He worked with an inmate who burnt his elementary school down,
according to Walters.

“I have been teaching in a N.C. prison for about six years,”
Walters said. “The course I taught a class focused on Joseph Campbell’s
ideas about the heroes journey.

Used as an application to the
inmates’ own lives, they see their time in prison not as a wasteland of
waiting until they get out, but as a thought provoking experience in
which they are challenged. Hopefully when they leave they will bring
wisdom back to the community. I try to get them to look at their
experience in the prison as being something that is preparing them for
a positive outlook when they go back home.”

UNC Asheville hosts the first ever production of this play in
the nation, which will eventually perform in many professional theaters
all over the country, according to Walters.

“The play itself is supposed to have a lot of audience
interaction,” said Brian Sneeden, assistant director and double major
in drama and creative writing. “Thousand Kites is broken up
into three parts. The first part is the actual performance written by
Donna Porterfield, where a prisoner, guard and five chorus members
speak out. There are two parents of both the prisoner, guard and also
one voice representing a community. The first act is the script play
which lasts about 45 minutes, followed by a 15-minute intermission. The
unique second act is the showing of the documentary film ‘Up the
Ridge’, a harsh reality documentary about the effects of the building
of the Wallens Ridge Supermax prison just outside of Whitesburg, Ky,
created by Appalshop with the help of Kirby. The third act is then an
open discussion with the audience.”

The play runs the gambit from anger to sadness to humor. There
are funny stories about prison food, tricks played on guards and music
written by Appalshop, according to Walters.

“The ultimate goal is to raise awareness, Walters said. “I
think most of us have a vague idea about prison, and believe the people
in there ought to be there, and they probably have it pretty good. The
more research we have done, we have found this to be far deeper than
what one may think.”

This is not a play designed like political theater telling
people what to think. It is rather a play that raises questions and
asks people to empathize with the situation, according to Walters

“I think the questions raised are ‘Is this the best way to
deal with crime?’” Sneeden said. “15 prisons have been built each year
for the past 20 years. All of that is derived from Nixon’s first
initiation of instilling ‘political toughness on crime’, which was his
campaign slogan. As a result we have the birth of the prison industrial
complex, or the privatization of prisons as a corporation. A huge
concern with the prison system is the privatization of prisons, such as
the Wallens Ridge State Prison shown in the documentary. Communities
buy a prison, rent it to the state and then pay a yearly fee,
increasing income into the community. This is a multi-million dollar
industry. Prisons are now more business-oriented.”

The Avery-Mitchell Correctional Facility shows how prisons put
in rural environments make communities dependant on them, according to
Sneeten. The people want to work there due to the higher wages in
comparison to poorly paid jobs of the community.

“One of the most important issues touched on by this play is
how these prisons, primarily built in rural communities, harm the
community,” Walters said. “The Supermax prisons are usually built in
economically depressed towns. The state sees it as a way to
economically bolster the town. The minute this happens, all of these
people take jobs there. They become stressed out due to the conditions
they are working in, and suddenly there is an upswing in alcoholism,
substance abuse and domestic violence.”

Since 1987, prison population has risen from under one million
to almost three million, due to sentencing guidelines, elimination of
parole and the three strikes you’re out policy, according to Walters

“I think the people will come out with far more awareness of
how the prison system actually works,” Sneeten said. “The play will
show how the fundamental system may not be the most appropriate, and
certainly not an efficient system for punishing certain rehabilitating

50 percent of people in the federal prison system, and 49
percent in the state prison system are there on drug charges, according
to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We must think if this is really an effective way to deal with
this,” Sneeten said. “If we sent people to a rehabilitation center, it
would cost a lot less than the average $25,000 to $60,000 we spend each
year per prisoner. People of Asheville smoke marijuana for instance,
and even though I do not smoke, I feel that the most dangerous side
effect is imprisonment.”

Author Alan Elsner, advocate for the injustices of American
prisons, says that there are three things you get when you become a
prison guard: a truck, a gun and a divorce, according to Walters.

Walters describes a book by Elsner called “Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in Americas Prisons.

“Elsner mentions a story in his book about a kid who was thrown
in jail on a 72 hour drug bust. It wasn’t even a prison it was a jail,
and in that 72 hours he was sexually assaulted by someone with AIDS. So
he came out after 72 hours with a full blown case of AIDS. This story
should make everyone take a step back and think about you or someone
you know going into prison for a minor drug charge, and basically
coming out with a death sentence.”

Alan Elsner heard about the book used in regards to the play
and will be attending and answering questions for the first two days of
the showing, according to Walters.

“I really didn’t think too much about the prison system before
this production,” Sneeten said. “I kind of considered prisons as this
distant island. I kind of had an oversimplified image of what a
penitentiary system was. I think a lot of people think the same way, or
portray their ideas of the prison system strictly based on what the
media reports.”

Organizations dealing with this dilemma, will hand out
materials in the Belk lobby, so people can be proactive about the
cause, and not just go home mad at the system, according to Walters.

“Some of these stories we are bringing in front of everyone
are so overwhelming in nature,” Morris said. “It will hit every one
very hard. We come close to tears during rehearsals, because we give it
all we got, and we can see the impact this play will have on the

Appalshop is filming the play as an artistic portrayal of their hard work and research, according to Morris.

“I represent all prisoners,” Morris said. “I am speaking for
all of them, just as the guard and the chorus are representing their
many voices. My first line is, ‘I am a prisoner. I am not one prisoner,
but many. I have one mouth that speaks many voices, and have two ears
that have heard many stories.’ So basically I am a conduit for all of
the people who have been incarcerated.”