Fringe Fest is this week, which you no doubt know unless your head has been under a rock. As usual, I scoured the list of shows, then culled them, then arranged them by time and location. It's a difficult process given so many interesting offerings. Several pieces really stood out and one I was determined not to miss started off last night at NOCCA with Never Fight a Shark in Water.
To say it was moving is to understate things. To say it was strong is still weak. What I saw was nothing short of the personification of sheer will, faith and optimism walking around in front of me in the person of Greg Bright.
To give you some background, in 1975 Greg Bright, then 20 years old, and Earl Truvia, 17, went to bed one night in the Calliope Projects. Later that night with the requisite banging on the door and shouted threats to open up, Greg was arrested for the murder of a 15 year old boy. After a Kafka-esque trial including an incompetent court appointed attorney, withheld evidence, testimony against him by a paid schizophrenic heroin addict testifying under a false name due to her own criminal record he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Did I mention that he and his co-defendent, Earl Truvia, didn't even know each other?
It is after Bright's poignant detailing of the conditions under which his ride down the "Snake Road" to Angola took place that we learn that Mr. Bright arrived there terrified, innocent of the crime of which he was convicted, and illiterate. We are exposed to the conditions of the prison, startled intermittently by a piercing prison whistle insisting on immediate stoppage of whatever the inmate is doing (and Bright's movement from one scene to another upon hearing that whistle hurts as the audience realizes that it is probably instinctive at this point), and we meet some of his fellow convicts as seen through his eyes. During rare free time from digging ditches, pulling Johnson grass, clearing land in all kinds of weather, Bright taught himself to read. His telling of the revelation that the word "the" was always going to be "the" no matter the context has the audience stunned and inwardly cheering for him.
Greg Bright was in Angola for 27 1/2 years as an innocent man. Upon learning to read he became his own legal advocate, pouring over law books and filing motions. In watching Mr. Bright explain all this with sadness, anger, humor and faith, we see a tall, thin, intelligent man who clearly has a six foot plus piece of rebar somewhere in his soul. It would have been easier for him to fold into himself, nurturing hate and self-pity. There were clearly plenty of less productive ways to survive physically and emotionally during his nearly three decades of unjust incarceration. Instead Bright chose to channel his outrage into the quest for justice, and as denial after denial of his motions arrived, there must have been times when the discouragement was nearly unbearable. Finally in 2003 he prevailed, the conviction was vacated and he was a free man.
The audience wanted to get up and holler in support and joy, but Bright wasn't finished. He starkly explained how ill prepared he was for freedom, how because he was not a parolee he didn't qualify for many of the re-entry programs, he tells of being handed a check for ten dollars upon his release.
Greg Bright is only a year younger than I. To put all this in perspective, while he was burning grass in a ditch in Angola, I was marrying, raising a child, reinventing myself multiple times, paying mortgages, traveling. In short, living my life and learning the lessons "free people" as he calls them, learn as they go along. While he certainly learned lessons, there were few that could have prepared him for life as a free person. He is still on his feet, his faith strong, as he learns these lessons so late in life, and clearly it's a continuing process.
Never Fight a Shark in Water is a one man show using Greg Bright's words written unflinchingly by Lara Naughton. It had been performed by a professional actor previously, and the actor no doubt did a great job portraying the man. It's the kind of part just about any actor would like to attempt. That said, watching Greg Bright perform this piece himself, portraying his darkest times, showing the brightness of his faith in God and himself, talking about his mother who becomes an unseen guardian angel in his references to her, and watching the man daring to lay himself bare under harsh lights on a floor stage with only four music stands, a bench and a butt can is a stunning experience and a great gift. He spares himself nothing and generously goes along emotionally naked in his prison denim peering over his reading glasses to reveal the eyes that have seen much and cried often.
Last night was opening night. Never Fight a Shark in Water will be shown again tonight and tomorrow. It's a staggering piece and ultimately one of the most positive, uplifting and life affirming pieces I've seen in a long time.
Below is information for the next showings. It's worth your time. More than worth it. Your Thanksgiving prayer will be more heartfelt after seeing this show.
Dates: November 17, 18, 19 at 7 p.m.
Venue: Lupin Theatre, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, 2800 Chartres Street NOLA 70117
Tickets: $8 (with a $3 Fringe button), available at the door or in advance at www.nofringe.org or at Mardi Gras Zone.