Between the Bars: Playwright Kash Goins on V TO X and prison life

One of Philadelphia’s most talked about new playwrights, Kash Goins has developed a series of dramas about life in the black community that are attracting a lot of attention. The world premiere of his latest, V TO X, impressed Philadelphia audiences a few months ago with its haunting presentation of prison life (read the Phindie review here). After many sold-out performances, which inspired reactions ranging from stunned silence to laughter to an enthusiastic and long applause, V TO X returns with five new cast members. Kash takes on the role of “the prison block’s most distinguished guest”, Wolf—a moniker that’s as much a title as a name. 

In the first of this two-part interview, Henrik Eger talks to Kash about his shocking and dynamic new work. 

[SkyBox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, 3rd Floor] January 22-February 14, 2016; gokashproductions.com.

Kash Goins rehearsing V TO X.

Kash Goins rehearsing V TO X.

Opening the doors to American jails

Henrik Eger: How did you develop an interest in prison life?

Kash Goins: I was always interested in the story of Rome a young male in VI Degrees, who’d just come home from prison and who referenced his experience in jail. After a sex marathon, during which one of the condoms broke, he had a moment of transparency in which he talked “real” about his prison time served.

Previously, those stories hid under the veil of bravado, but this moment was honest and vulnerable. After Rome said some painful things he experienced, he stopped short, declaring “They made me . . .” but never finished the sentence. I always wanted to know what they made him do.

Eger: I remember that scene vividly. You often use characters that you either know or have heard about. In V to X, you not only show prison life in the US, but also the corrupt driving force behind it.

Goins: I knew a story about Rome’s experience would be on the horizon. I’d become increasingly familiar with the prison industrial complex, and the momentum behind the big business of privatized prisons. I became intimately aware of the experience of Khalief Browder, who,  without a conviction, after surviving three years of abusive Rikers Island incarceration, committed suicide in June [2015]. Everything I needed to form the framework for a story, which included Rome’s experience, was there. After a mini workshop, I wrote the play in 5-6 weeks, including about 10 rewrites.

Eger: Tell us about the research you did to find the evidence for the corruption of the privately run prison system.

Goins: So much reading. Too much reading. I watched documentaries until my eyes bled. There were times beginning in late 2014 and early last year where I slipped into information overload, and had to pull back. I probably lost about a total of three months during that time between December 2014 and August 2015 because I became blocked due to too much information. There were too many trails in which this story could have traveled that would have all discussed a critical aspect of what’s happening in our justice system.

I think I could probably write ten plays just on the prison Angola, a former slave plantation in Louisiana where the inmates still pick cotton, and participate in rodeos for the entertainment of the town folk. A country club with steep membership fees overlooks the inmates picking cotton. There is just too much information out there for a person who wants to become informed. Non-biased information. Just information.

Eger: Did you talk to lawyers to avoid being taken to court by some of the revelations?

Goins: I didn’t. That may be a necessary final step prior to publishing. V to X will be my first published piece. However, all of the names are fictitious. Kareem Brenner (Bitch Baby) is based off of Khalief Browder, but his eventual fate is different from that of Mr. Browder’s. While Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) exists in real life, our United States Prison Corporation (USPC) is made up. I was careful not to indict anyone, making sure to leave everything in the fictional realm.

The cast of V TO X.

The cast of V TO X.

Powerful presentation of prisoners

Eger: You presented the often troubled and troubling histories of the inmates. Tell us about your main sources. For example, did you interview ex-convicts or did you visit a prison or two?

Goins: I didn’t visit prison, nor did I interview inmates. I happen to know a good many family members and friends who have experienced prison or are currently incarcerated. I’ve been hearing these stories forever. Then I researched stories about inmates whom I didn’t know. It was important for me to go through an experience where I learned something new.

Eger: You present male robbers and murderers of all ages, and a host of other characters, all locked up and existing in close proximity to each other. Have you met some of those people?

Goins: I know plenty of drug dealers who got locked up too young. I know many who have committed murders at a young age and are doing time. I know sons who never met their fathers, but I was interested in knowing what happens when they do meet, later in life, especially if the father happens to be doing time, even though I’ve never experienced that scenario personally.

Eger: You even introduced a transvestite in your play, who becomes the lover of one of the toughest leaders of the black prison gang.

Goins: I don’t know any pre-op transgendered people housed in male prisons. I don’t know any first hand. I don’t know how they navigate the system when they are there. I didn’t know their options for housing. I didn’t know intimately any stories of any who have gotten locked up, and what they may have gone through in their lives to lead them to that point. Yet, for the storyteller in me, it was important for me to pursue this character from a position of strength—even in the midst of these killers and lifers.

Eger: In a previous interview you said that you didn’t like responding to letters from prisoners and wouldn’t visit them. Yet, you wrote what may well become one of America’s most important plays on black inmates. Have you changed your mind since?

Goins: This is still true about me. My position, however, is not one of judgment or personal standards. I’m still learning about myself. Providing words that weigh a ton is hard. That’s one challenge. The other is, even though I know it means a great deal for someone in prison to receive correspondence from the outside, as minimal as it may be, I struggle mightily with writing what I would consider a selfish “small talk” letter to someone in that situation.

It would be easy for me to go into a JPay [Jail communication and payment system] and help someone out financially. However, as creative a person as I am, I just don’t know how to kindly state that my life is getting better out here, while I know it sucks in there. I don’t know how to BS my way through that. I think it’s insensitive to ask someone how they are, when despite their response, I know there is a better situation for them. And I’m in no place to help with the overall quality of their lives. I don’t think I should ask if I can’t be of any real comfort and assistance—not a temporary fix like a few dollars here and there, which is the extent of my worth in that situation.

Eger: Your latest play presents powerful, even intimate scenes, where love and violence, even murder, hit the audience hard. Academics and historians who study prison life may be puzzled by some scenes in V to X. And yet, going by the audience’s reaction, your creative approach clearly hit a raw nerve.

Goins: I don’t consider myself a documentarian. I’m as much a passenger on the journeys that I write about as any audience member—I pursue one hell of a ride. That’s the payoff for me.

Eger: I can’t wait till I see your newly staged version soon, with all of us sitting inside a jail. May many more people experience the power of life through theater.  

A newly staged version of V TO X by Kash Goins runs January 22-February 14, 2016, at the SkyBox Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street  (3rd floor). It’s important, for this production, to arrive on time. See gokashproductions.com for times and tickets. 

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com