Pahokee, Florida, is a long way from New York City, but for five weeks from Jan. 30 through Feb. 24, New York theater-goers received an intimate look at life in Pahokee, thanks to a new play, “America is Hard to See.”
The play tells the story of life in a community called “Miracle Village." It could be the story of any small town in America except for one common thread. Miracle Village is real, and a significant number of its residents are convicted sex offenders who have served time in prison and who hope to start life anew as productive members of society.
|Actress Amy Hayes, left, played the part of Pastor Patti Aupperlee. Ken Barnett played Chad, based on the real-life Miracle Village resident Chad Stoffel. The scene portrays an Ash Wednesday service.|
In Florida, life for reformed sex offenders isn’t easy. By law, they must undergo a life-long process of registering as a sex offender, and they must not live near a school, a daycare facility, a playground or park, a bus stop or any place where children may congregate.
Their ability to get housing and jobs is so difficult, many end up homeless, having been shunned by family and society. According to the late Rev. Dick Witherow, the evangelical pastor who founded the faith-based Miracle Village ministry, they are “the modern-day equivalents of lepers.”
Miracle Village bars violent sex offenders, drug users, serial offenders or anyone who has been diagnosed as a pedophile by a licensed mental health professional.
It is located roughly 4 miles from downtown Pahokee, a remote and economically depressed town on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee. The main industry is agriculture, and the 54 duplexes and six family homes that make up Miracle Village were built by U.S. Sugar in 1964 as housing for migrants working the sugar cane fields.
While the community is isolated, it could not escape the attention of local and national media. Eventually, it caught the attention of a small independent theater company in New York that develops original plays about real people and events.
“We take a particular interest in people in the margins,” said Fordham University Associate Professor and Life Jacket Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Travis Russ. “We dramatize people who are often outsiders,” Russ explained, “and for this particular production, we were interested in outsiders in small towns. We wanted to ask the question, ‘how do they carve a path forward?’”
The company’s process is to live alongside its subjects, conduct interviews and then write dialogue based on the transcripts. When they decided to send a research team to Pahokee, Russ reached out to Rev. Patti Aupperlee, who was then pastor of the First United Methodist Church there and familiar with the community and its unusual population.
Aupperlee, who is part of the “me too” generation of survivors of sexual abuse, came to know her new constituents quite by chance.
“I was invited to attend a worship service in the chapel at Miracle Village,” she said. “When I arrived with my family, I was astonished by the beautiful music that was being provided by the worship director. It was like he was channeling music directly from God. It wasn’t at all like a performance; it was like a pure worship experience.”
|Actor David Spadora is captured in a moment on stage during a recent performance of "America is Hard to See." The play ran off-Broadway Jan. 30 to Feb. 24.|
At the time, Aupperlee was trying to grow attendance at the little Pahokee church and was planning on starting a new contemporary service on Thursday nights. She realized the God-given musical gifts of Miracle Village’s Chad Stoffel and recruited him to help launch the new service.
Aupperlee told Stoffel that being accepted by the church wouldn’t be easy. She knew that some members of her congregation would be horrified when they found out that former sex offenders were attending their church. They decided to test the waters at the Ash Wednesday service.
Linda Moss was one of the most vocal opponents; and as Stoffel recalls, he and others from Miracle Village were almost expecting a lynch mob when they arrived for the service. But according to Stoffel and Aupperlee, something unexpected happened. After the service, Moss left the sanctuary, then turned around and came back and invited Stoffel and his fellow musicians to join the choir for the Easter Cantata. Over time, she became like a second mother to him.
“As they have gotten to know one another,” Aupperlee said, “people have begun to see each other for who they really are. Now when new residents arrive at Miracle Village, they receive gifts of fresh linen and hygiene kits from the church. Church members also host birthday parties and movie nights for the group.”
In the fall of 2015, after Stoffel had become worship director for the church, the research team from Life Jacket Theatre Company arrived in Pahokee to do interviews with residents of Miracle Village, church members and other local citizens.
“We did about 75 interviews, more than 400 hours, over a period of three years,” Russ said. “We had thousands of pages of transcripts. I heard some very difficult stories,” he added. “Some of them were unsettling, some of them haunted me.”
As part of the research, they also combed through court records and other archival documents. Then the real challenge began as the team struggled to boil the material down into a 90-minute theatrical production.
|Actor John Carlin is shown cradling a banjo during a recent stage performance. According to Director Travis Russ, music in the play gave the audience the ability to "look directly into a character's soul and hear their truth."|
In the end, they told six stories, some of which are composites. The six actors are called upon to play multiple roles so that the audience gets more context. In addition to acting, they sing and play musical instruments.
Main characters include a young couple called Chris and Lexie, an older couple called Harry and Margaret, plus a choir director named Chad and a pastor named Patti. The audience first meets them under friendly circumstances. Later, they begin to hear their darker stories within the format of a group therapy session.
Russ sought the assistance of independent theater composer Priscilla Holbrook to write music and lyrics for the show. She poured over the transcripts and ultimately created 18 musical moments using the actual dialogue of the interviewees, along with a few traditional United Methodist hymns.
“I wanted to let the story dictate what the music and lyrics should be,” Holbrook said. “There are no big production numbers. Instead, we wanted it to seem natural for the actors to go from speaking to singing. Most of the music is performed by one or two characters. Some of it is a cappella, and some features accompaniment by piano, guitar or banjo.”
When Stoffel attended a workshop at the theater during the writing phase, the two musicians discovered they worked well together, and Holbrook invited him to write the arrangement for the first hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.”
“Music plays a huge role in this production,” said director Russ. “The lyrics help advance the narrative and humanize the characters. It softens the storyline.”
“Music gives the audience the ability to look directly into a character’s soul and hear their truth,” he said.
The play was staged in a small off-Broadway theatre in the lower West Village, and according to Russ, was very well-received.
“In some parts of the show you could hear a pin drop,” he said. “People were engaged and willing to listen. They stayed around when the show was over and participated in optional post-show conversations with the cast and crew.”
A New York theater critic called it “hands down, the bravest show currently playing in New York." The "Times" called it a “theater documentary,” and said, “the play provides an uncomfortable look at forgiveness and what it means to put it into action.”
A number of Floridians made the trip to New York to see the production, including Bishop Ken Carter, Atlantic Central District Superintendent Gary Spencer and Director of Missional Engagement Clark Campbell-Evans. According to Aupperlee, the bishop also brought his cabinet to Pahokee so that they could see missional engagement in action.
“Little Pahokee got a chance to show and be the Church,” she said.
--Suzanne McGovern is a freelance journalist based in Orlando.