‘Don’t judge me for what I did, judge me for what I’m doing now’. The words of the scratchy phone call ring out as they are simultaneously projected onto concert hall’s backwall. Samora Pinderhughes (at the piano, accompanied by Argus string quartet) has just told us that the Healing Project is a ‘labor of love, labor of community’ and the voiceover is an immediate invocation of the community that exists outside of this performance space.

The community that has come together to bring the Healing Project to life on stage —the love that they bring to the work— is similarly impactful. As the next voice talks about the liberation of writing and creating a handbook to leave for the next occupant of a bed space, Adam O’Farrill’s trumpet laments a prison industrial complex that would require such a guide. As with Samora’s 2022 album Grief, there is such raw tenderness in the exploration of human experience, masculinity, family, pain, love. One of the unshakeable phrases of the shared calls is the preferred term for someone who has completed their time served: ‘a returning citizen’. The clear-eyed wisdom and dignity is reflected in the sounds of the Healing Project Choir who —clothed in pastel-dipped white robes— blend over pizzicato strings.

Setting his sights on an abolitionist future and a compassionate present, Samora is clearly committed to the work and the process of getting things done. Eight years collecting 100+ stories and involving 50+ artistic contributors is a mark of the creative labor required to make a piece such as this. What’s truly beautiful about the result is the contributions of all the artists on stage who similarly bring complete artistic commitment to the process. Elena Pinderhughes’ tumbling flute lines summon the multi-dimentional beauty of the lives celebrated in The Healing Project. Rafiq Bhatia’s guitar sounds are as virtuosic as any of the shared voices. The returning citizen who refers to the system as ‘a digestive tract’ deserves a set at the Comedy Cellar. Nia Drummond’s spiritual ‘I’m a-trav’ling to the grave’ brings the hall to its feet.

Wet from being bathed by members of the choir, Samora pads back to the piano, sinking down into healing chords. The choir move from a split-level formation to a single, unified presence. Bass and cello rub together in their sibling ranges as the higher strings find harmonics to accompany the sung words ‘forgive yourself, learn to live with yourself’. Chris Pattishall adds some organ to give it an elevating, spiritual something. ‘Don’t hurt yourself’ —arms are linked, voices lifted— ‘it’s a daily practice’. The final v/o talks about all the wisdom and the words that have been put there throughout history. Add to that teaching The Healing Project — an undertaking that brings love and wisdom to the work of critiquing a prison industrial complex so that the complex human might have dignity back.

If you want to find out more about the experience of one project participant, read about Keith LaMar here. Image credit Lawrence Sumulong.

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