Addressing what Congressman Hakeem Jeffries calls “the mass incarceration epidemic in America” has prompted action from every corner of the political and cultural landscape. In the ongoing conversation about prison reform, Jeffries has had to share space not only with the President but with Kim Kardashian-West.
While Kim’s helping free grandmothers, and Jeffries is co-sponsoring bipartisan reform bills, the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community is taking their own significant steps towards uplifting LGBTQ people who’ve been down the road of incarceration.
The Center’s Beyond Bars presents “a night of poetry and performance by formerly incarcerated LGBTQ folx,” hosted by Rayceen Pendarvis, and showcasing talents like singer Leadrew Nickens, poet MsNyghtLyfe, and comedian Anthony D. Oakes, among others.
Sarah Lawson, who focuses on individual therapy and social outreach programs at the Center, sees Beyond Bars as a vital platform for combating stigma and understanding the performers’ unique lived experience. “Whether we’ve been doing this kind of work or not, we all come to the table with a certain amount of assumptions,” says Lawson. “I think just humanizing people’s experience is a great first step. Understanding people’s stories and how many people have these stories is such an important step too.”
However, not every performer will include that part of their story in their act. “We wanted to keep this community-based and also don’t want to exploit people’s stories,” she says. “So we sort of said, if that’s something you feel comfortable with, yes. And a lot of them actually have reflected to us that they’re excited to have the space in which that is valued, in which that is centered. But we say to people you can or you don’t have to. This is really about your story, whatever that looks like.”
Oakes’ story has led to gigs performing everywhere from D.C.’s Drafthouse and Comedy Loft, to the Broadway Comedy Club and the Greenwich Village Comedy Club in New York City. It also includes a period of incarceration years in his past, but that, he says, “never really ends. You really go through it for the rest of your life.”
Like Lawson, Oakes acknowledges that stigma is the main burden in reentering life post-incarceration, and an added challenge to navigating the mostly straight space of stand-up. “And it’s difficult mentally to go after your dream when also dealing with those types of barriers.”
Still, Oakes stays motivated by working steadily and honing his comedy craft, though he says he’s always been naturally funny. “My parents love me, [but] they’ve always told me, ‘Everything ain’t funny.’ That was my thing growing up. ‘Everything is not funny.’ But I found the humor in everything, and people would love for me to be around them because I would make them laugh.”
It was the laughs he earned performing at his first comedy showcase four-and-a-half years ago that changed his life. “I had never done stand-up before, but [then] I told my first joke and got my first laugh,” he says, adding, “I had so many bad habits going on in my life. It was in that moment that I knew that all of that had to cease, and this is what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. In that moment. It was that magical. And that’s when I knew.”
Beyond Bars: A Night of Poetry and Performance takes place Wednesday, February 20, at Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW. The event is free to attend, though RSVP’s are requested. Visit www.thedccenter.org.
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