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On a Tuesday night, orange-clad young men are acting out scenes and horsing around at New Beginnings Youth Development Center, D.C.'s correctional facility for male juvenile offenders in Laurel, Md.
On the surface, it might seem like the guys are just unwinding and joking around with each other. Sometimes they rap or dance, banging their hands on the windows and their chests to add a beat. But the teenagers are actually filming a movie for a program called Life Stories.
Since early October, Tom Workman has been coming to New Beginnings' New Horizons unit once a week to help residents write a screenplay based on their own experiences. Life Stories is organized by The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts and serves various marginalized populations, including seniors living in nursing homes, homeless women struggling with substance abuse, and at-risk youth.
Most of the guys at New Beginnings have never acted on stage or on camera before, but Tom Workman says that out on the streets, many of them adopt a persona in order to survive.
"I try to dig beneath the surface and find out like, where a lot of this sort of comes from, but if you dig long enough you see that they're still really kids and still trying to find direction," he says.
That familiarity with "the streets" is reflected in the participants' work.
"You know, when we do the stories, they tend to be of the gangster genre, but that's only a means to an end, because I try to put a morality piece in there showing that you know, there's a no easy way out and even the guy who appears to be on top, there's somebody always waiting to sort of get him," Workman says.
He also says the guys have to decide for themselves whether they want to change. He's been working on the Life Stories program for a while, and says there are probably about 30 DVDs from past projects floating around. He says some of the youth he works with recognize the people in the films.
"They're like, minor streets legends or whatever, and some have actually gone on to have life sentences in the penitentiary," he says. "Some are dead, so that's sad because obviously some of the choices that they made took the wrong turn. So I think that can be very sobering when they see that, but that's a reality — that everybody doesn't make the right choices, that they don't grow from these experiences."
All the young people interviewed for this story asked to be identified by their initials. One of them is 17-year-old S.W., who's in for attempted murder and carjacking charges. He says the program has taught him how to channel his anger.
"When I first got here, like, I ain't never wanna like communicate with others like when I was angered, like when I was angry, I let it all build up in me, so now since I been working with them, like now I express myself more," he says.
M.W., 18, says that, for him, the fun part is the adrenaline he gets from mimicking real-life situations. Even though he says that excitement isn't worth a long stint in prison, New Horizons unit manager Kim Jackson says it is disconcerting for residents to enjoy the rush of recreating a crime. But at least they're being honest.
"I'm glad you're saying this because you're not putting up that shade like yeah I'm changed, yeah, I'm going to do something different," she says. "It means that you need to take more time with this young man and work on those core issues... Why is this such a rush still at this time for you, and what other outlet, or what other thing can we put into place where you can get that same rush into something positive?"
Jackson also says recreating everyday challenges helps prepare the guys for their return to the real world.
"Now they're able to respond in a different way. You know, and see, okay, if I'm back in this situation, this is what I can do," she says. "This is possible because they've been acting it out. They've been role-playing."
Jackson says New Beginnings currently houses 59 young men who "come from various walks of life." They're in for offenses ranging from truancy, to leaving group homes without permission, to murder, rape, gun charges, petty larceny, and robbery. But she says the facility is going through a transformation in an effort to make the experience more therapeutic for the young men staying there.
She says Life Stories is "definitely therapeutic" because it gives the young men an outlet to tell their story in a positive way.
"A lot of times we don't understand why somebody may be doing something or the decisions that they're making," she says, "but the Life Stories program provides those residents with an outlet to say 'this is my story. This is what I go through. This is my hustle, every day of my life, so now you can get a little peek into why I may be sad sometimes, why I may be angry sometimes, why I may utilize cursing, because that's all I was brought up hearing.'"
She says the young men are pretty much all "street smart." "Just being aware of the stuff that they've had to experience, you know, myself or even yourself may not have ever experienced some of them things, and being able to really fend for yourself at 10, 11, 12 years old, I can't say that I had to ever do that," she says. "But they speak about the different things that they've had to do, and the different things that they've learned just being out there on the streets in different situations."
She says Life Stories builds on the wisdom they come in with, by teaching them that they can act differently. She says the program has really hit home for one resident, 19-year-old E.K, who came to New Beginnings about a year ago on an armed robbery charge.
"I just see through the Life Stories program how he becomes even more a leader to the other residents underneath him, and the stuff that he says to them, it's like stuff that I've said to him, or I've heard staff try to encourage him on, and he's like, OK," she says. "He listened. He got it."
New Outlet for Expression
E.K. helped write the screenplay for the project and plays one of the main characters. He says the script isn't a carbon copy of his life, but it does include some key similarities.
"The drugs, the money, the gambling, my younger brother," he says. "I got two younger brothers that look up to me. They ain't never really get into the selling drugs, because I always try my best to keep them away from it. But in this story we put them into the game, selling the drugs, getting the money."
A fairly private person, E.K. says Life Stories gives him a way to express himself and get his story out without putting his business on display.
"In a way it's therapeutic because, I hold things inside. I don't really talk about my past," he says. "I don't really talk about things that I've been through that happened to me. I don't really express myself at all, so this is helping me.
A large chalkboard consumes the left wall of E.K.'s room. It's covered in motivational quotes and words of wisdom that the teenager says he reads every day, such as "Wolves don't lose sleep over the opinions of sheep," and "Sacrifice what you are for what you will become."
He's had to deal with some pretty difficult circumstances, but E.K. says he's trying his best to get on track.
"I been through some things at a very young age, so I'm learning now to cope with them, how to deal with them, how to react to certain situations better." Another quote he tries to live by is, "When you hold on to your past, you do it at the expense of your future. Let it go.'"
E.K. says you'll never forget the pain, but you can learn how to live with it.
[Music: "Wisdom" by The Guggenheim Grotto from The Universe is Laughing]
Photos: Life Stories