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Life behind bars becomes theatre

Lebanese prisoners are staging a version of "12 Angry Men," some to draw attention to unjust treatment and harsh conditions, others as therapy.

Director Zeina Daccache is a licensed drama therapist and holds a master's degree in psychology. With a grant from the European Union, she worked at the prison for the past year, going nearly every day to work with the inmates on the play.

“I received 200 applications at the beginning,” Daccache said. She eventually narrowed the participants to 40 inmates.

The cast included rapists, drug dealers, murderers, and a man on death row. She chose to inject the play with prisoners’ personal monologues, which tell the true stories of how the prisoners ended up at Roumieh.

Some are dark, like the rapist's tale. Others are light: A convicted drug user tells a story about how his mother inadvertently told a judge her son was a drug dealer, innocently trying to get him a lighter sentence. The information predictably resulted in just the opposite.

Songs, written and performed by the inmates, reflect on life in prison. There’s even a dance sequence choreographed to Michael Jackson’s “Scream,” during which inmates demonstrate the mundane aspects of prison life. Using hip hop and disco moves, they mimic the daily ritual of sleeping, eating, playing cards, fighting and watching TV.

The rehearsals took place in an iron-barred recreation room in the center of the prison — the same room where the play was performed for the public. On performance days, 200 audience members were locked into the packed room, with some sitting on the floor. After the inmates/actors arrived to a rousing applause, the few guards present locked the door. No bathroom breaks were allowed, parroting for two hours the inmates' own experience at the overcrowded prison.

Daccache began production on the play at the prison last February. The play’s final performance was last weekend, after running every weekend for eight straight weeks to rave reviews.

“Nobody has ever done anything like this before in a prison in Lebanon,” said Marie Ghantous, whose organization, The Association for Defense of Rights and Liberties, helped sponsor the play. “It helps the prisoners manage their anger and feelings, and to build a bridge between the inside and outside worlds, because they don’t know how to deal with people.”

Rawad Jafar plays the third juror, the first to side with juror number 8 and vote not guilty. He has served more than half of his five year sentence for dealing drugs. He says he didn’t mind coming to prison because he wanted to stop using and selling drugs.

“This play affected me emotionally,” he said. “I used to be shy, but this has made me strong, I say what I think. It’s made me change for the positive, just going to rehearsals.”

Daccache says it wasn’t easy convincing Lebanese authorities to allow a young woman to work with a cast of convicts. It took eight months of petitioning the relevant Lebanese authorities just to get permission to work in the prison.