RESCHEDULED: UNC Asheville Students Perform in Community Production of “On the Row”

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On the Row poster
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UPDATE: Due to the snow, the performance of "On the Row" has been cancelled for Jan. 17 and tentatively rescheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday, March 2. 

When UNC Asheville students Elijah York, Robert Simmons and Bjorn Goller-Hagood take the stage with three other Asheville community members to perform in “On the Row,” it won’t be for a typical play experience. There’s no set, no blocking, there’s not even a traditional plot. “On the Row” is a reader’s theater production produced by the Prison Story Project, and it tells the stories of 11 death row inmates, as written by the inmates themselves.

The reader’s theater style of this play is well suited to the social justice production, explained Goller-Hagood, a drama major. “When it comes to theater powerful effective theater, the script is really all that matters,” he said. “Taking away all of the staging portions of a production can help you to focus 100 percent on what’s being said.”

“It’s very poetic,” said York, an economics major who plays a character called The Minister—a man who admitted to killing four people, and then had a “blinding light” conversion to Christianity. He became ordained and counseled other inmates on death row until his own execution in April of 2017. “It’s different, but it’s beautiful at the same time. And it’s very sad.”

The Prison Story Project is a storytelling and creative writing project benefiting incarcerated women and men in Arkansas since 2012. Inmates share their stories, inspired through the use of poetry, creative writing, literature and songwriting. Their work is edited into a staged reading, initially performed by professional actors inside the prison and then outside for the community.

The Asheville production of “On the Row” is part of a series of events surrounding UNC Asheville’s MLK Week keynote address by Michelle Alexander, author of the best-seller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. UNC Asheville has been exploring and sharing Alexander’s work both on campus and in the community in advance of her visit, including “learning circles” for faculty and staff, a campus-community reading group, and other collaborations and outreach efforts. In a collaboration between an honors senior capstone class at UNC Asheville and AP (Advanced Placement) students at Asheville High School, UNC Asheville students developed a special workshop for the high schoolers, with exercises that explored implicit bias, socio-economic oppression and systematic class perpetuation.

For Goller-Hagood, performing “On the Row” off campus, out in the Asheville community, is a chance to “reach out to a different demographic.” Goller-Hagood plays two different characters in the production, including a young African-American man called Brainstorm. “He grew up in a, for lack of better words, gangster society...which goes hand in hand with poverty,” Goller-Hagood explained. “And I don’t think he ever saw a way out, or knew anything different from what he was experiencing on the street with his fellow gang members.”

“It’s hard reading stuff like this, because at the end the of the day you know they aren’t all bad,” York said. “They had to make choices.”

Goller-Hagood said he hopes the audience comes away with “the ability to detect and interpret someone’s circumstances, maybe to understand that we are not all dealt the same hand, and just little things along the way can prevent going down that one path that no longer has any more alternatives.

“You start off on one path and then there’s all these little paths along the way, but if you’re not trained or taught about these other paths, if you don’t know they exist, it’s easy to stay focused on the things that are holding you back, or the fact that you can’t find these paths,” Goller-Hagood said. “I think the biggest takeaway is to listen before it’s too late. Because all of the characters in this production, it’s too late. It’s too late for them.”

Due to the snow, the performance of "On the Row" has been cancelled for Jan. 17 and tentatively rescheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday, March 2 at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, 285 Livingston St. in Asheville, and is free and open to everyone.

Michelle Alexander’s keynote address will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 18 in UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center, Kimmel Arena. No tickets are required and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. Arena doors open at 6 p.m. For more information, visit the UNC Asheville events website.