‘Sing Sing’ screens at Sing Sing in an emotional homecoming

Jake Coyle/Associated Press | 6/27/2024, 6 p.m.
Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin is standing inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility for the first time since he was incarcerated here …
Colman Domingo, left, and Clarence Maclin in a scene from the film “Sing Sing.” Still from A24 via AP

Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin is standing inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility for the first time since he was incarcerated here 12 years ago. In this very chapel, he reminisces, he once sold drugs — a backup plan for when the yard was closed.

Not many men pine to return to the prisons in which they toiled away years of their life. Maclin, 58, lived inside Sing Sing for 15 years. But on this day, he’s buoyant.

“I got a purpose now,” Maclin said.

Maclin was at Sing Sing, the 198-year-old maximum- security prison perched on a hillside overlooking the Hudson 30 miles upriver from New York, last Thursday for the premiere of the upcoming movie “Sing Sing.” In the film, which opens July 12 in theaters,

Colman Domingo stars as an incarcerated man who helps lead a theater program for others at Sing Sing. Together, they find community and catharsis through theater.

The program is real: Rehabilitation Through the Arts, or RTA, is a nonprofit founded by Katherine Vockins at Sing Sing in 1996. Many of its former participants make up the cast of “Sing Sing” alongside professional actors like Domingo and Paul Raci. Maclin plays himself — a hard, muscle-bound character whose talent for shakedowns in the yard, it turns out, transfers remarkably well to Shakespeare.

“On stage,” Maclin said, “I got permission to do anything.”

As movie premieres go, the one for “Sing Sing” at Sing Sing was about as poignant as it gets.

The film was screened above the stage where RTA performed its first show for an audience half civilian, half incarcerated men in navy green jumpsuits.

For the formerly incarcerated actors in the film, returning to Sing Sing was an emotional homecoming. They brought a message of hope and healing that they, themselves, are still trying to live up to.

On a sweltering day with the sun still high above the Hudson, two former RTA members — Lorenzo Chambers, 33, and Jose Robles, 64 — stood outside the prison walls, handing out water bottles. In his 35-plus years in prison, Robles first began building sets for RTA productions and then became a performer.

“You learn more about yourself than you do the play, you know?” Robles said.

Inside the first gate, Sean Dino Johnson, a founding member of RTA and a costar in “Sing Sing,” sits in the shade, cringing a little each time the gate opened and closed.

Johnson, 59, served 22 years in prison. When he was first approached about RTA nearly two decades ago, he was a tad skeptical.

“I said, ‘You want me to get up there in tights and do ‘To be or not to be’?” recalls Johnson, grinning. “Where’s the punchline at?”

But Johnson, despite his doubts, gave it a go and soon found that he had “got the bug.”

Looking inward as an actor brought him an inner peace that had previously eluded him.

“That was my first understanding of what a community is,” says Johnson as he makes his way up the hill to the theater.

While the cast members and others mill about in the chapel, the film’s director and co-writer, Greg Kwedar, eyes the next-door theater nervously.

“Sing Sing” was largely shot at a decommissioned prison upstate, so this was a moment he had long awaited.

“I’ve imagined what this theater would look like for eight years,” Kwedar said. “This is the most important audience in the world for us. I just hope it’s honest.”

“When we walk out of here, I hope the air feels a little different for those of us who are going home,” adds Kwedar. “And I’m highly aware that half of the audience will be going back to their cells.”

Since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Sing Sing” has been widely celebrated. A24 acquired it soon after its premiere. In March, it won the festival favorite audience award at SXSW.

The emotional response “Sing Sing” provokes runs two ways, eradicating some of the divisions that exist between those on the inside and those on the outside. For the RTA alumni, it’s a rare platform to show what they’re capable of.

For civilians less acquainted with the oft-ignored lives of the incarcerated, it’s a window into their humanity.

“You don’t feel as separated from the world,” said Shaytuan Breazil, a 32-year-old serving a 12-year sentence who was helping to serve snacks for visitors.

When RTA started, performances were only for fellow incarcerated men. Its leaders, like director Brent Buell (played by Raci in the film), would make videotapes for their families to see. What began with modest expectations grew and grew.

“I thought I’d come up here and direct — I love directing,” Buell said. “I had no idea I would come in and make the friendships of my life.”

More than 1,000 people have since passed through RTA, which is now in eight prison facilities. It plans to expand to two more in September. The U.S.

Department of Justice has found that within one year of release, 43% of formerly incarcerated people are rearrested. Among RTA alumni, that number is less than 3%.

Jon-Adrian “JJ” Velazquez served more than 23 years in Sing Sing before he was granted clemency for his wrongful conviction by former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He has worked closely with RTA and appears in “Sing Sing.”

“The most effective way to change somebody,” said Velazquez, “is to believe in them.”

Inside the un-air-conditioned theater, old stained glass windows had been blacked out. Guards sat in elevated chairs along the walls. The former incarcerated men warmly greeted those currently serving across the aisle.

It was the third screening that day at Sing Sing, whose warden, Marlyn Kopp, said she wanted the whole population to see it.

(The first two screenings were for incarcerated people only.)

After sitting in a row toward the back, Maclin was urged to take a seat in the front row.

“I’m moving up,” he said as he bounded to the front. There were old acquaintances Maclin wanted to see at Sing Sing but, he said before the screening, it was more important that the incarcerated men saw him, to realize what life after prison could hold.

When the movie was over, the incarcerated audience appeared visibly moved and stood in a standing ovation. They stood again just to applaud A24. Their biggest cheers weren’t for Domingo but those who had been jailed alongside them. After the film, Maclin and Johnson spoke on stage with a pair of currently incarcerated men who shared their emotional reaction.

“I’m home,” Maclin said. “Back home on my stage.”

Maclin and Johnson faced their chairs toward those incarcerated and addressed most of their comments directly to them. Whatever one might think normally is discussed inside prison walls would be startled at the tenor of the conversation.

Acting, Maclin said, taught him that vulnerability and empathy weren’t weaknesses but strengths. Johnson spoke of listening, the importance of crying and of love. Keep working, he implored. “Men can change,” he said.

Soon, curfew would be called and the men of B Block would file out first. But for now, many heads nodded in agreement at Johnson’s words. They didn’t have much, Johnson told them, but they have each other.

And for RTA members when they get out, alums would be there with some help.

“This was Sing Sing’s best kept secret,” Johnson said. “Now, the world’s gonna know.”