Play Explores Restorative Justice

11/12/10 7:50AM By Susan Keese
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Photo/Laura Bliss

(Host) Restorative Justice is a relatively recent alternative to the conventional criminal justice system.  

Instead of focusing on punishment, it works to heal the damage that ripples out through communities when a law is broken.

This weekend and next, Brattleboro's New England Youth Theater celebrates this more inclusive approach with a program titled "The Quality of Mercy."

VPR's Susan Keese takes us backstage for a preview.

(Vocalist warming up)

(Keese) For years the New England Youth Theater has been an after-school haven where kids of all ages learn every aspect of theatrical production. 

The program is housed in a partly renovated factory that's full-to-bursting with classes, rehearsals and community activities.

This time last year the Brattleboro Community Justice Center - one of 12 such programs around Vermont -- rented space here and put on a show to commemorate Restorative Justice Week.

(Waxman) "And it was fantastic. It was so public, it was so exciting."

(Keese) Rebecca Waxman is the theater's executive director. She says this year the justice center commissioned the New England Youth Theater to create a show about restorative justice.

(Man)" Let's try it."

(Waxman) "Here we go!"

(Kids singing) "Darkness comes down now all I can see. I feel a darkness, rising in me. Out on the outside. That's where I've been. Out on the outside. Let me come in."

(Keese) To prepare , Waxman and members of her staff sat in on restorative justice volunteer panels that meet regularly with offenders.

(Waxman) "To work through the process of accepting the harm they've caused and hearing possibly from the victims of the crime and really finding a way to repair the damage done."

(Keese) The production is series of pieces performed by kids from grade school age to high school and beyond.

In one of the more disturbing pieces, 15-year-old Zoe Perra plays a runaway who returns home, still craving love from her abusive family.

(Perra) "I Clear my throat and my mother turns up the t.v. and my father belches. So I decided to do what I always do when I want to get their attention. I kick in the glass of the TV and I say, TV is for morons! And my father picks me up in the air and throws me onto the ground, and the liquor is hot on his breath and he calls me an idiot, but at least he's talking to me."

(Keese) Perra says her character has a high likelihood of breaking the law. But sending her to jail would just reinforce the lessons she's already learned.

Perra says a restorative justice panel could provide the chance the girl's family didn't give her to make things right and become part of her community.

(Perra) "Restorative Justice is trying to show them that they have a place it's showing them the mass scale of what they think they‘ve done to help themselves and how it hurts other people."

(Keese) Alec Silver plays the role of a teen who hit and killed a young child who ran out into the street in front of his car. He isn't being blamed for what happened.

But being officially innocent isn't enough. Eight months after the accident, he writes to the boy's parents.

(Silver) "I think about what happened a lot, and I'm sure you do too. I've been having some problems at home and at school and a couple people here thought it might be a good idea to write to you - I'm sorry if this letter upsets you."

(Keese) Silver ‘s character eventually does meet the boy's mother. It doesn't go well in the beginning. But Cast member Moriah Martel says it's important.

(Martel)" I don't think his character can get to a healed place in himself unless he reaches out to the boy Danny's parents. And I think maybe they can't get any kind of healing and reconstruction of themselves unless they talk to him."

(Keese) Just by doing this show, the young people have developed new ties with their own community. They've worked with real Brattleboro Police on a version of "Officer Krupke" from West Side Story.

(Boy) ""Don't they know cops got feelings too?"

(Cop) Dear kindly sergent krupke, they just don't understand. It's just our bringing up-kee that gets us out of hand. Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks. Golly, Moses, That's why we're all punks."

(Keese) Watching the cops dance and cavort on stage is worth the price of admission all by itself.

But there's a lot more here. And director Waxman says the kids have developed a sense of mission, to let their community know about an idea that could make the world a more connected place.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese, Backstage.

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