Passage Theatre’s Caged deserves to be seen
There have been many plays about men in prison, usually focusing on the crimes committed or the relations between and among those behind bars. Finding one that focuses on how crime and imprisonment also affect those outside the walls written by those who have lived it is extremely rare. Caged, now being presented by the Passage Theatre Company in Trenton, is that extremely rare play. It bursts with emotional power, and it deserves to be seen.
The playwrights, the New Jersey Prison Cooperative, are 29 current and former inmates of the New Jersey correctional system. While some of them are now out of prison, the rest remain incarcerated, with parole eligibility dates ranging from 2021 to never. The events in Caged are distilled from their own real life experiences, creating a searing indictment of the failures of the prison system.
Caged theme is centered on one family and the multitude of problems they must navigate
The story centers on the Moore family of Newark. Father Jimmy, a junkie, barely connects with his family. Mother Chimene, afflicted with cancer, tries to keep the family safe and together while looking after her infant grandson Zaire. Oldest son Omar, Zaire’s father, struggles with low-paying jobs and low-level drug running to get money for rent, food, and his mother’s medications. Daughter Sharonda also struggles with low-pay jobs while attending mandatory DUI counseling and performing community service. The family tries to protect youngest son Quan, a bowling fan, from the cycle of crime, addiction, and poverty that plagues them.
When Omar, falsely accused of murder, is sentenced to 17 years in prison, the cascading effects of his incarceration affect the entire family in unwanted, unexpected ways.
Director Jerrell L. Henderson brings out the best in his excellent cast. Brandon Rubin portrays Omar as a strong, proud man under almost unbearable pressure. Monah Yancy, Nicolette Lynch, and Ural Grant, as Chimene, Sharonda, and Quan, round out one of the most true-to-life stage families seen in a long time. Will Badgett tackles dual father-image roles as Jimmy Moore and Ojore, an old black revolutionary who becomes Omar’s prison mentor.
Special mention goes to Boris Franklin, making his stage debut. Franklin, one of the playwrights, turns in memorable performances as a prison guard and a prison mentor and guardian of Omar.
Germán Cárdenas-Alaminos’ set design moves fluidly from the Moore’s apartment to Omar’s jail cell to the mean streets of Newark. In this he is ably assisted by Daniel Schreckengost’s lighting designs, Beth Lake’s sound design, and the projections created by Miranda Kelley evoking the passage of time and the specifics of place. Credit also must be given to Chris Hedges, who taught the drama class at East Jersey State Prison where the stories of the inmates first came to light, and Jeffrey Wise, who led the workshop where those stories were transformed into a play.
Don’t miss Caged
The members of the New Jersey Prison Cooperative have blessed us by sharing their own experiences in the penal system and turning them into a work of power and art. Audiences who seek out plays that are not only well-written and acted but also have a social justice message will want to see Caged during its brief run. I strongly encourage you to head to the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton to see Passage Theatre Company’s emotionally gripping and hard-hitting production of Caged.