REVIEW: "America is Hard to See"
It’s hard to imagine a class of people more universally hated than child sex offenders. Even among the most progressive and religious who preach forgiveness of sins there seems to be an agreed upon limit of empathy. Redemption for child sex offenders is scarce, exiled and ostracized disgrace more common.
After the prison sentence ends, a life sentence often begins under a complex and robust rubric of rules that govern every aspect of an offender’s life. Few acts more uncomfortable than facing a child sex offender, and being challenged to see that person as a person. More challenging, still, is offering sympathy and forgiveness.
A new documentary play with music, appropriately titled “America is Hard to See”, has the explicit goal of challenging its audience to confront this uncomfortable reality and interrogate what it means to live beside and among child sex offenders in search of a second chance. The result of this world premiere production by Life Jacket Theatre Company is a powerful and provocative evening of theatre that is deeply unsettling, surprisingly humane, and ultimately uplifting. “America is Hard to See” uncovers a dark, invisible, and forgotten place within our country, inspiring tough soul-searching and difficult questions for those willing to ask them.
Deep in Florida’s sugarcane country, on the far outskirts of Palm Beach County, is a small housing development originally built for migrant workers. A six block square with three stoplights and 63 duplex houses, Miracle Village, featured in a short Australian documentary piece called “Banished!”, is a Christian mission where almost everyone is a child sex offender.
Established in 2010, Miracle Village houses around 130 people, mostly men—the offenders—and their family members. Violent and serial offenders are not accepted into the highly selective community, which welcomes only 1 of every 20 applicants, and is geared toward providing a sense of normalcy, purpose, healing, and a path forward for people coming out of prison without a place to go.
In 2015, four members from Life Jacket Theatre Company spent a week in the town, interviewing residents and learning about this unique and fascinating place. Like “The Laramie Project” (2000) before it, “America is Hard to See” is pieced together by playwright/director Travis Russ from the transcripts of those interviews, with a few liberties taken—including some invented dialogue and composite characters—and original songs, hymns mostly, composed by Priscilla Holbrook using the words of the offenders as lyrics. The songs, though occasionally poignant, are more often awkwardly interpolated and rarely dramatically rewarding.
The audience learns of the characters—real people—and their crimes in the same manner and pace that the interviewers did. Chad (Ken Barnett), a music teacher, molested a minor male student and was reported when he voluntarily confessed his crime at a gay conversion therapy ministry; the student refused to testify against him. Chris (David Spadora) dated a girl with whom he became intimate; when the two were discovered having sex in his car, he found out she was just 14. Thomas (John Carlin) fondled his step-granddaughter for well over a year before being stopped. All three admit their guilt. All three have finished their prison sentences. All three have come to Miracle Village resolved not to “mess up” and end up back in prison. All three want a second chance.
These men live under “72 rules”: a lifetime on the Florida sex offender registry, a ten-year ban on moving out of the county, tracking bracelets, frequent reporting requirements, strict curfews, and the like. None can live within 1,000 feet of where children may congregate, hence the novelty of Miracle Village, surrounded on all sides by fields of sugarcane and, not surprisingly, on the poorest outskirts of the richest county in Florida. Outcasts, the men participate in group therapy, attend church services, and are given roles to play within their community.
It is the church, though, that becomes the center of their lives and the crux of this play. When the unconventional Pastor Patti (Amy Gaither Hayes) from First United Methodist in Pahokee—the closest town—visits Miracle Village, she feels called to intervene in these men’s lives. She visits their “tacky and imperfect” blue church, and upon hearing Chad play the piano, asks him to lead a band at her Wednesday night services. This leap, this radical act of love and forgiveness, inspires a wave of tumult that rocks Patti’s community, testing her religion’s creed that “all are welcome”.
Soon, Patti finds herself with two congregations: the Wednesday evening crowd of child sex offenders, and her Sunday morning crowd of elderly, conservative Pahokee residents. These worlds collide on Ash Wednesday, but over time, the stubborn parishioners come around and accept these men, welcoming them into their community through the “transforming power of the Holy Spirit”. It sounds cheesy, but, of course, it is true. And therein lies the uplifting nature of a story that poses a jaded exclusionary view of small town religious folks with the redemptive force they also possess. From the perch of a progressive monolith in New York City, exposing religious hypocrisy is almost sport, but in “America is Hard to See”, it is the fulfillment of values in action that is most stirring.
For a victim of sexual assault, I imagine that seeing this play might be akin to bringing Abraham Lincoln to a performance of “Assassins”. The selected members of Miracle Village present, perhaps, the most sympathetic face one could imagine for child sex offenders. Their therapist (Joyce Cohen) warns us about the “unreliable narrators” endemic to documentary theatre, pointing out that “[t]hese people have a real propensity for lying”. The play is true, in that it is real, but it is also a version of the truth, as reported by its interview subjects. It is art, not journalism, and art that prizes honesty over ideology.
Sex crimes exist on a spectrum from public urination to rape. When justice is not served, it is an unspeakable tragedy. When justice is served, though, when men like Chad, Chris, and Thomas do their time in prison, and follow the rules of their release, what are we called upon to do? How are we called upon to treat and think about them?
It’s easy to know in the abstract. It’s harder after spending time with these men, both knowing the graphic details of their crimes but also seeing the world through their eyes. From Miracle Village, America is hard to see. But most child sex offenders do not live in Miracle Village. Their environment is more like the Grover’s Corners of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”: ordinary, generic, everywhere.
“America is Hard to See” is a weighty piece that reminds you of the powerful role theatre plays in fostering important discourse about our common humanity. It is uncomfortable, which means it is doing its job, and is guaranteed to challenge your assumptions and point of view. Regardless of where you land, you will emerge from this show both changed and eager to continue the conversation. And that is the highest praise I can give any piece of theatre.
Bottom Line: “America is Hard to See” by Life Jacket Theatre Company is a new documentary play with music that explores the lives of a community of child sex offenders in Florida, testing the limits of our capacity for empathy and forgiveness. Deeply unsettling, surprisingly humane, and ultimately uplifting, it is a powerful play that provokes more questions than answers, and is guaranteed to leave you changed.
“America is Hard to See”
145 Sixth Avenue
New York, NY 10013
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: January 30, 2018
Final Performance: February 24, 2018
The title of the play is an allusion to Robert Frost’s poem, “America is Hard to See” (1951), which challenges the traditional view of Christopher Columbus.
Columbus may have worked the wind
A new and better way to Ind
And also proved the world a ball,
But how about the wherewithal?
Not just for scientific news
Had the Queen backed him for a cruise.
Remember he had made the test
Finding the East by sailing West.
But had he found it? Here he was
Without one trinket from Ormuz
To save the Queen from family censure
For her investment in his future.
There had been something strangely wrong
With every coast he tried along.
He could imagine nothing barrener.
The trouble was with him the mariner.
He wasn’t off a mere degree;
His reckoning was off a sea.
And to intensify the drama
Another mariner Da Gama
Came just then sailing into port
From the same general resort,
And with the gold in hand to show for
His claim it was another Ophir.
Had but Columbus known enough
He might have boldly made the bluff
That better than Da Gama’s gold
He had been given to behold
The race’s future trial place,
A fresh start for the human race.
He might have fooled them in Madrid.
I was deceived by what he did.
If I had had my way when young
I should have had Columbus sung
As a god who had given us
A more than Moses’ exodus.
But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we would have to put our mind
On how to crowd and still be kind.
For these none too apparent gains
He got no more than dungeon chains
And such posthumous renown
(A country named for him, a town,
A holiday) as where he is,
He may not recognize for his.
They say his flagship’s unlaid ghost
Still probes and dents our rocky coast
With animus approaching hate,
And for not turning out a strait
He has cursed every river mouth
From fifty north to fifty south.
Someday our navy I predict
Will take in tow this derelict
And lock him through Culebra Cut,*
His eyes as good (or bad) as shut
To all the modern works of man
And all we call American.
America is hard to see.
Less partial witnesses than he
In book on book have testified
They could not see it from outside—
Or inside either for that matter.
We know the literary chatter.
Columbus, as I say, will miss
All he owes to the artifice
Of tractor-plow and motor-drill.
To naught but his own force of will,
Or at most some Andean quake,
Will he ascribe this lucky break.
High purpose makes the hero rude:
He will not stop for gratitude.
But let him show his haughty stern
To what was never his concern
Except as it denied him way
To fortune-hunting in Cathay.
He will be starting pretty late.
He’ll find that Asiatic state
Is about tired of being looted
While having its beliefs disputed.
His can be no such easy raid
As Cortez on the Aztecs made.
*An artificial valley that cuts through the continental divide in Panama, forming part of the Panama Canal