Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ventriloquism at Rikers Island

One of the more unusual performance experiences in my career occurred during the recent Jewish holiday of Sukkot. I was asked by Chabad - the outreaching Hasidic sect - to  perform a ventriloquist show during the annual Sukkot celebration that Chabad brings to Jewish inmates at the famed prison on Rikers Island, NY. This was a return engagement, actually, as they had asked me to do this same gig two years ago. I knew what to expect at this, my second Rikers Island performance...or I thought I did...

Two years ago, having never been inside a prison, I was a bit nervous in anticipation of my prison debut. After security checks that lasted more than an hour, I finally was allowed to enter a gym together with about a dozen Chabad members who proceeded to set up for the party. A small band, also brought in by Chabad, set up and began blaring Hasidic rock. A small group of about a dozen inmates gradually entered the gym and took seats at round tables spaced widely apart on the gym floor. The Hasidim yanked inmates from their seats and onto the dance floor (Hasidic rules do not allow mixed gender dancing, and encourage same-gender dancing). Most of the inmates accepted the dance invitations, but a few of them steadfastly refused.

A few more prisoners eventually filtered in to the gym. Food and drinks were shared. Finally it was my turn to perform. The Hasidim loved my show. But as far as the inmates were concerned, despite being a captive audience, they were also a "dead" audience. They pretty much ignored my show, except for one middle aged man who paid rapt attention to the entire show. He had pulled up a chair close to me as soon as I had begun the show, and seemed to watch intently till the end. He was no more responsive than the other inmates (he didn't laugh once) but he seemed fascinated by my ventriloquist techniques.

While packing up after the show, I asked the Head Hasid if he knew what the inmates were in for. He said, "Most of them are here for white collar crimes...what you'd expect from Jewish criminals. But a few of them are here for other crimes."

I said, "Like what?"
He said, "For example, did you notice that guy sitting close up to you throughout the show?"
"How could I miss him. What is he in for?"
"Murder."

Despite my awareness that one shouldn't judge people by their appearances, I couldn't help feeling surprised. That man looked very ordinary and nondescript. More like an accountant than a murderer.

"Do you know the details?"
"Multiple murders. He's a hit man for the Russian mob."

I wondered whether that explained his intense fascination with my show. Had he been hired to whack me and/or my dummy? Was he sizing us up? Waiting for an opportunity when the guards might wander off during the show? Or had he been thinking about ventriloquism as a possible technique to incorporate into his profession, if he ever gets out of prison? Perhaps he could throw his voice to throw his victims off guard before striking?

I left the prison as quickly as I could, after dealing with another hour of security checks.

A few weeks ago, my second Rikers Island experience was different. First off, the security was much tighter this time. It took a good two hours to get through security checks entering, and another two hours leaving. Second, the Hasidim had learned from my first show. This time, they arranged for a large contingent of non-Jewish inmates to be invited to see my show, so that I had a much larger audience than the first time. And for some reason, this time the audience response was terrific. Both the Jewish and non-Jewish inmates laughed often and heartily. True, I had also learned from my previous experience, and had honed my act a bit to make it more prison-friendly. But that wouldn't entirely account for the difference in reception. One never knows.

I had wondered whether my hit man fan would be there. I don't think he was. Rikers is basically a holding prison for people who are awaiting trial or re-trial or sentencing, so there is a lot of turnover. My hit man fan is likely in an upstate prison. Or maybe he beat the rap and is back in Brooklyn, whacking people. Wherever he is, I hope he started a fan club for me. I've never been good at marketing myself, so I'll take all the grass-roots support I can get.

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