Manahawkin Native Devises Multi-Faceted Theatrical Healing Program for Formerly Incarcerated

Courtesy of Kevin Bott.

Stafford Township — A Southern Regional alumnus (Class of ’91) has designed a program called Ritual4Return that combines theater, education and community to help the formerly incarcerated reenter society with dignity and lead healthy, meaningful lives. Manahawkin native Kevin Bott now lives in Lambertville; he is a community-based theater artist and scholar whose passions lie in the humanities, social justice and movement building.

Bott’s family is well known in the area. His older brother, Christopher, is a Ship Bottom chiropractor, and his younger brother, Ryan, is a member of the band The Following. His mother, Gail, was Stafford Township’s longtime Municipal Alliance Committee director and organized Project Graduation for many years.

Healing and freedom are two words that describe the goals of his 12-week program, which puts 10 participants on a stage and allows them to unburden and present their truth – to move through a metaphorical death and rebirth as they overcome shame and stigma. Moreover, the experience allows them to shine, some for the first time in their lives, and to feel supported and celebrated.

“It’s powerful,” Bott said.

Ultimately, “Ritual4Return envisions a world in which the liberation of formerly incarcerated people leads to the liberation of all; to the end of mass incarceration; and to the healing of humanity from generational trauma and the deeply embedded diseases of violence, hatred, and fear.”

While home for a visit over the Thanksgiving holiday, Bott sat down for a cup of coffee at The Local in Ship Bottom to chat about his latest project.

Kevin started his theatrical life with Our Gang Players in the 1980s and was directing at age 18. He calls himself a “two-time conservatory dropout,” having attended both Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre. He earned his B.A. in Italian from Rutgers University and L’Università di Firenze, and earned his master’s degree and doctorate in educational theater from New York University.

From 2006 to 2008, while volunteering for Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a New York state prison-arts nonprofit, Bott facilitated arts workshops and original theater productions in various medium- and maximum-security New York state prisons, where he observed “a massive crisis in mass incarceration.” His 2010 dissertation was titled “A Ritual for Return: Investigating the Process of Creating an Original Rite of Passage with Formerly Incarcerated Men.” He spent the next decade in higher education. He is the 2019 A Blade of Grass – David Rockefeller Fund Joint Fellow in Criminal Justice.

Today he is putting his doctoral work to use as the founding artistic director of Ritual4Return, a concept he launched over 10 years ago. His partner Alexander Anderson was an attendee of the pilot program in 2009 and is now director of social work. According to his bio, since crossing the R4R threshold, Anderson has conquered his distress and anxiety, and now has “a strong sense of self-acceptance and self-worth. He no longer feels burdened with the past and the need to pay back an unpayable debt. He is living freely and doing what he loves: helping others define and undertake their own threshold, crossing into true freedom.”

Bott explained the inspiration for Ritual4Return came from criminology literature that showed him the idea of a rite of passage, or ritual that changes a person’s social status. Think of a wedding, for example, whereby two formerly single people become a married couple – an invitation-only, one-time performance for an audience of those specially chosen to hear and bear witness to their story.

R4R carries participants from convict to citizen and, in the process, raises questions about how best to restore their identity.

For many of the participants, before coming to the program they had never been given a chance to tell their story ­– perhaps the story of what they did, but not the story of what happened to them. Often their histories involve childhood trauma, emotional and sexual abuse, exposure to substance abuse, or in some cases having been “born into hell.”

The show gives 10 participants the opportunity to stand up and say, “I’m not a ‘criminal’ – I’m a traumatized person.” Art coaches help them shape their ideas and learn how to make creative choices to tell their stories in the most impactful way possible.

Therein lies the collaboration, Bott explained. They’re the experts of their own stories, while the R4R team are the experts in art making. Without a script, the end result is a truly organic, honest product. Together they create an unforgettable staged performance that leaves both the performers and the spectators changed.

“I wanted something alive, and real, to happen in a theatrical experience,” he explained. “This is not a play. The audience doesn’t just sit back and enjoy the show; they sit up and engage.”

Rehearsals are held at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting at Rikers Island. The next show – the first all-female R4R – will take place on Saturday, Dec. 14, at the National Black Theater in Harlem.

The program incorporates ritualistic art forms such as drums, masks and movement, which tell the collective tale of the lead-up to incarceration. Then each participant gets five to seven minutes to speak, be it through linear storytelling, poetry or dance.

In the audience are the participants’ friends, family, parole officers, professors, funders/partners and other special guests.

After the storytelling segment, a town hall-style meeting is held that poses these questions: What do all these stories have in common? How is systemic, structural oppression apparent? And what is the community’s obligation to support these people as they navigate the difficult road back to life outside prison? How is humanity restored?

In a sense, Bott said, prisoner reentry never ends, as they continue to struggle with addiction and recovery, housing, education and family reparations, not to mention the deeper, spiritual and psychosocial hurdles. He cited a recent study that followed people released from prison in 30 states from 2005 to 2014 and found 83 percent, or five out of six, were rearrested within nine years.

The final segment of the show is an exchange of vows and a sort of graduation ceremony. Unbeknownst to the participants, members of the audience come up to the stage and read the vows with them.

“It’s intense,” he said.

For its successes, the program has more growing and evolving to do, “given the bootstraps way we’ve been doing it,” Bott said. But he is confident with the right funding and opportunity it will meet his vision of greatness.

A Kickstarter campaign enabled the program to launch earlier this year. Thanks to grant funding and other contributions and partnerships, the program has raised $85,000 since February. At this point “we’re looking for stability,” Bott said.

Participants come to the program through the Long Island-based Fortune Society and by word of mouth and undergo an interview process to determine suitability. Bott said they’re looking for people who have done enough self-reflection and work on themselves to be in a position to take on a graduate-level course to train into this type of work.

Catch Bott talking about Ritual4Return on “Here and Now” on New York’s ABC 7 on Sunday, Dec. 22, at noon.

– Victoria Ford

Reposted from The Sandpaper