Can’t Get Rights But Can Get a Voice

Flyer of "Can't Get Rights", a play based on the real-life experiences of justice-involved actors. We could not publish photos of the actors or of the actors.

Flyer of “Can’t Get Rights”, a play based on the real-life experiences of justice-involved actors. We could not publish photos of the actors or of the actors.


On stage, 19 year-old Nakiya was sitting on a park bench with two of her guy friends when two police officers walked towards them. “You can’t be there,” one of the officers, said. “It’s a children park. It’s for children.” The three youngsters protested they were not doing anything wrong. The cops replied by asking for their pieces of identification. They then searched them and found a knife on one of the young adults. “It’s for my work!” the tall African-American shouted, as he was being handcuffed.

The cops dragged him away from the imaginary park and the audience clapped.

This scene was one of half a dozen vignettes in a play called Can’t Get Rights, based on the real-life experiences of 18 novice actors who performed in the production. Over 75 people came to watch the second, and last, performance of the play last Tuesday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice Black Box Theatre, in Manhattan.

“We want to share our experiences and bring awareness to what’s going on,” said Bernard, 23, one of the performers.

Bernard, a tall man with short hair and baggie pants, said the park scene was inspired by one of his encounters with the police. “Cops gave me a tickets for sitting in a children park and last time I was stopped and frisked was no later than last Saturday,” he said.

The performance took place a day before Mayor Bill de Blasio announced New York City would drop its legal challenge against a law expanding the city’s anti-profiling legislation. The anti-profiling law makes it easier for people to sue the police when they estimate that techniques, such as stop-and-frisk, are used in a biased way.

The play’s actors — mainly males in their 20s – have all had some recent interactions with law enforcement officers.

They are all involved in court cases, either coming or going back to jail, on parole, or on probation.  Aged between 18 and 24, they are attending Queens Justice Corps, an educational and job-training program at the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES) in Jamaica, Queens. The center runs different jail-alternative programs tailored for youth and young adults. The justice-involved students can work on their GED, apply for secondary or post secondary institutions, attend job-readiness programs and take part in community-benefit projects. The goal of such programs, which usually last for several months, is for young convicts to acquire skills that will help them reintegrate smoothly into society.

It’s the first time Queens Justice Corps students create a play.

“What’s the most effective strategy for juvenile reentry is something that we are studying right now and we’re looking to learn more about that,” said Jannen Buck Willison, a senior research associate in prisoner reentry and criminal justice at the Urban Institute. “I think art does have a place.”

Theatre of The Oppressed NYC, an organization promoting theatre as a way to engage social dialogue and policies changes, approached Queens Justice Corps with the idea of creating a play.

The twenty or so students who volunteered to participate decided they would write their own script.

“What happened to us can happen to anybody else because we are just like anybody else and that’s what we want to show,” said Ronald, one of the main characters of the many scenes.

Ronald and the other performers could not reveal their last names. Tenaja Jordan, Queens Justice Corps Director, said it was safer for them because some of them have been involved in gangs.

In one of the scenes, a cashier asks 23 year-old Ronald, a black man, for two proofs of identification when he tries to pay $1,000 for a bag and a belt with his credit card, while a Caucasian consumer next to him isn’t asked for any id.

In a following scene, cops knock on Ronald’s family’s door at 5 a.m. saying they have a transit warrant for him as he is suspected to have jumped a turnstile the night before.  Ronald answers that he was home all night, but ends up following the police officers to the police station where he is then accused of being involved in a shooting.

A play can be an opportunity for actors to share their stories with an audience that can sometimes be more likely to judge them rather than to engage with them, explained Dr. Michelle Fine, a social psychologist who has studied social inequities in prisons and among youth in urban communities.

Pushing that logic further, Katy Rubin, the director of Theatre of the Oppressed, who trained the actors, stepped on stage at the end of the performance.

“ Ok. Those are the problems we’re facing, if we don’t do anything they’re going to stay that way. So, let’s brainstorm, what solutions can we think of?” she asked the audience.

Some of the spectators raised their hands and agreed to replay several scenes as if they were in the shoes of the young men in the vignettes. They acted more assertively, insisting on their rights, sometimes refusing to follow a police officer’s orders.

“This is good,” said Kevin of the forum that took place after the play.  “Even when people are aware of what’s happening, they ignore it. We want to get them not to ignore it.”

The students rehearsed for eight weeks with Theatre of the Oppressed and many of them said they would like to perform the play again.

“I want the people to see that it’s not because I’m black that you have to hold your purse when I walk next to you,” said Bernard, “I’m like everybody else.”