Playback Memphis Brings Together Police and Felons

By Bianca Phillips

Felons and police officers may seem like especially strange bedfellows, but a Memphis theater troupe has built a bridge between some who enforce the law and some who have broken it.

And now those groups are planning to join together to help kids in Frayser stay out of trouble.

Last fall, Playback Memphis, an improv troupe that uses theater to promote healing and reconciliation, paired a group of five Memphis police officers with six ex-offenders from LifeLine to Success, a ministry that helps felons turn their lives around and re-enter society.

“In the Playback method, someone shares a reflection or observation or personal story. We have a team of actors and a musician, and we bring those stories to life on the spot using music and metaphor,” said Playback Memphis Director Virginia Murphy.

The group met for 10 weeks and shared personal stories from their lives. Playback Memphis members taught the participants how to use improv to act out those stories.

“We listened to ex-offenders tell stories of their childhoods, about growing up in difficult situations. And a lot of the officers had those very same stories, including myself, growing up in a home with domestic violence,” said Memphis Police Officer Joy Knowlton. “The only difference between us is some of us turned right and some of us turned left.”

In the end, friendships were formed, and any distrust between the two groups faded away.

“Our clients found a way to express themselves that they didn’t even know existed. It allowed them to remove a lot of stress and reveal some their experiences,” said LifeLine to Success Executive Director DeAndre Brown. “Doing that with police officers made it even better. We had those people who used to run from police, and to be able to meet with them every week on purpose was a big deal.”

The group of police officers and felons acted out some of their stories for the public in a performance in early December. But the work didn’t stop there. Murphy’s goal, in getting the two unlikely allies together, was to get them to assist in Playback’s plan to work with troubled youth in Frayser.

“We wanted to do a project where police and ex-offenders could come together, and if you could break down barriers and bring some healing and transformation between those two groups who we typically don’t think of as having harmonious relationships, they can go out and have an impact on young people,” Murphy said. “They will have a reach Playback wouldn’t have on its own.”

Playback runs an anti-bullying program called Be the Peace in area schools. And they hope to establish it in the Achievement School District in Frayser soon. When they do, the police officers and ex-offenders who participated in the fall session will join them in that work.

“We want to take the Playback model into the schools in our neighborhood to help children use conflict resolution skills,” Brown said. “We have identified a Frayser Success Zone around the elementary school across the street and the high school across the street.”

In addition to helping Frayser kids, Knowlton said she hopes the Playback model may eventually expand within the police department.

“This needs to be an experience for every officer. I would like to see the [Memphis police] training academy give officers a chance to see Playback to help officers touch back with their roots and remember why they chose this career,” Knowlton said. “For me, [Playback offered] a reminder of why I chose to be a police officer and give back to the community.”

Originally published in <em>The Memphis Flyer</em>

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