Gregory Reaves says he gets a bit nervous before performing, whether he’s DJing a backyard party or doing open mic poetry. But he didn’t feel his usual jitters before stepping on stage with jazz artist Dominick Farinacci for the first time earlier this month.
“(Farinacci) asked me how I was feeling. I said, ‘You know what, I’m a little nervous that I’m not nervous,’” Reaves said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not nervous at all. I can’t wait, I want to get on that stage.’ That thought made me nervous.”
On June 7, at workforce nonprofit Towards Employment’s annual event, Reaves shared his life story, accompanied by musicians. The performance was a preview of an event called the Work & Reentry Experience, where Reaves and three other Clevelanders shared their experiences with the criminal justice system in a live show featuring music and spoken storytelling on June 17 at the East Cleveland Public Library’s Greg L. Reese Performing Arts Center. Towards Employment partnered with Farinacci, who is from Cleveland, to put on the performance, and the Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation provided grant funding.
“It’s a beautiful marriage of storytelling and great music,” Reaves said. “Dominick – a world-renowned trumpet player – and an excellent band behind him. … There’s multimedia, there’s pictures being displayed behind, and we’re up front telling our stories.”
In 2017, Farinacci and U.S. Army veteran Jaymes Poling created Modern Warrior LIVE, a production that includes live music and Poling’s narration of his experience in the army and return home. Through a program called the Modern Warrior EXPERIENCE, Farinacci and his team help people tell their own stories through live productions.
Modern Warrior LIVE has shared veterans’ stories in performances across the country. The Towards Employment shows were the first performances about formerly incarcerated people’s experiences. They combine music and storytelling with the goal of helping people find hope and better understand one another.
Farinacci’s team filmed the show at the East Cleveland library, and a recording is forthcoming. Three more Clevelanders impacted by the criminal justice system will share their stories at a yet-to-be determined date.
Reaves found purpose in sharing his story at the Towards Employment performance.
“I felt like God allowed me to go through the things I’ve been through in my life specifically for this, just so I could tell this story – so that it could help some people, and help others understand,” he said.
Putting on the performance
At a residency a few years ago at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, the Modern Warrior team saw that many formerly incarcerated people related to the story of a veteran’s experience returning home. Last year, the team reached out to Towards Employment about collaborating on a performance sharing formerly incarcerated people’s stories.
As the nonprofit’s alumni coordinator, Reaves had the task of finding Towards Employment alumni and other community members to participate.
One of the selected storytellers, Daryl Rogers, first connected with Towards Employment at a presentation about “Dad, We’re Incarcerated, Too!”, a program he and his daughters created to highlight the impacts of incarceration on families and loved ones of people in jail and prison.
After each Clevelander wrote their story, the Modern Warrior team gave feedback for the final scripts and selected songs and wrote music to accompany them. The storytellers heard the music for the first time during rehearsals just before the performance.
Sharing experiences through storytelling and music
In 1995, Reaves, who was a corrections officer for the Cuyahoga County sheriff’s department, pled guilty to complicity to aid an attempted escape and served five years in prison.
He lost multiple family members while he was in prison and right after coming home, including his mother a year after his return and his oldest daughter the next year. Reaves said he found employment working at nonprofits when he returned from prison but struggled with drugs and alcohol. His favorite part of the performance was getting to talk about his two daughters, he said.
“It’s my story, but it’s meant for everybody else,” said Reaves, who also serves on the Community Police Commission. “People that have went through what I’ve been through need to know and understand there’s a path forward. You’re not who people may say or think you are. And then there’s other people that need to know what it feels like to have that lived experience and that we are still people and this labeling thing needs to go away.”
Reaves listened to Toni Braxton’s album “Un-Break My Heart” nearly every day in prison, and Farinacci selected Braxton’s song “I Don’t Want To” from the album “Secrets” for the performance.
The band performs Nina Simone’s song “Sinnerman” as Reaves chronicles his first day of incarceration and his realization that he would be there for years. The show also has lighter moments, including a detail Reaves added about his credit score to make people laugh.
Rogers, another storyteller who currently works as a general contractor and designs suits for his clothing brand Seventh Seal Designs, said many stories in the media only focus on end products without showing how a person got to a point in their life.
The song “A Child is Born,” written by trumpet player Thad Jones with lyrics by Alec Wilder, plays twice during Rogers’ segment of the performance. The peaceful song about the beauty and innocence of a child in their first moments of life is initially juxtaposed against the abuse that Rogers shares he experienced as a child, then returns to the performance when Rogers talks about turning his life around and finding a new start, Farinacci said.
Rogers says incarceration is not just a physical place, and it doesn’t begin when someone enters a jail or prison. First, he said, “we get locked up in our minds.” For a long time, Rogers said he associated love with abuse and violence. At church and in the community, he said he wore a “mask for every occasion” to hide and escape from his feelings. His healing process involved forgiving those who hurt him and learning how to love and forgive himself so he could love others.
“The end result of that is being able to reunite with my beautiful children, my girls, and give them something that I never got, which is unconditional, genuine, pure love,” Rogers said.
Helping people gain understanding
Empathy is “at the core of” Modern Warrior LIVE performances like this one, Farinacci says, and it’s a more powerful word than sympathy. Rather than feeling sorry for the storytellers on stage, he hopes audience members will see themselves in the stories.
“These stories really touch on the universal qualities of the human condition: of suffering, of loss, of love, of hope for better days ahead, of trying to get your own life together,” he said. “And if we can see ourselves in these individuals, then it provides a deeper level of connectivity between us.”
This increased understanding can help fight stigma, Farinacci said. Sharing the stories took courage and humility, Reaves said, and he hopes they’ll impact the audience.
“I just want people to look at other people as people. Take that stigma off, that label off, that mask off. We’re just all humans; let’s face life that way,” Reaves said.
Learn more about Modern Warrior LIVE on its website, and watch a clip of the performance here. Visit Towards Employment’s website here, and get in touch with community engagement manager Ronnie Cannon by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.