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Jul
18
2024
Performing Arts

The 27 members of the NIA Men’s Chorus performed selections from the musical “Les Misérables” on Saturday, June 8, before an audience of invited guests at Chillicothe Correctional Institution. The chorus was formed and is directed by Catherine Roma, who has worked in several Ohio correctional institutions for 30 years, helping incarcerated people lift their voices in song. (Photo by Matt Batchelor)

Incarcerated chorus sings out in ‘Les Mis Inside’

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Look down, look down
Don’t look ‘em in the eye
Look down, look down,
You’re here until you die

Twenty-seven men sang these words from “Prologue: Work Song,” the opening number of “Les Misérables,” as they entered the chapel at Chillicothe Correctional Institution on Saturday, June 8. The men trained their eyes on the floor, their hands hanging before them as though bound by invisible rope.

The men are the members of the NIA Men’s Chorus at Chillicothe. Under the direction of local resident Catherine Roma, they performed “Les Mis Inside,” a pared-down version of the popular musical with choral arrangements. Before an audience of invited guests, including a large contingent of Yellow Springers, the men sang words that evoked the brutality and deprivation endemic to incarceration and the systemic cruelties that often lead to it — themes that run heavily through both Victor Hugo’s novel and the musical it inspired.

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In spite of the tragic nature of much of “Les Misérables,” the voices of the NIA Men’s Chorus were lifted in beautiful song, carrying forth some of the musical’s most popular numbers, including “Master of the House,” “Do You Hear the People Sing,” “One Day More,” “Drink With Me” and “Bring Him Home.” The songs were blocked and acted as they would be in a full performance, moving the audience to both laughter and tears.

Performing with the chorus was John Wesley Wright, professor of music at Maryland’s Salisbury University, as well as several of Wright’s students. Roma and Wright have worked to bring music to incarcerated people for 30 years, coaching and directing singers in the award-winning UMOJA Men’s Chorus at Warren Correctional, UBUNTU Men’s Chorus at Madison Correction and London Correctional, KUJI Men’s Chorus at Marion Correctional and HOPE Thru Harmony women’s chorus at Dayton Correctional.

Though the News attended the performance of “Les Mis Inside,” the paper was unable to interview the members of NIA Men’s Chorus. Director Roma, however, spoke with the News last week about the foundation of NIA Men’s Chorus and what the chorus means to the men who lend their voices to it.

“‘Nia’ means ‘purpose’ [in Swahili] — it’s one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa,” Roma said. “They chose that name.”

The NIA Men’s Chorus was formed in early 2023 thanks to the intervention of both former Warren Correctional warden Tony Brigano and Chillicothe Correctional Institution resident Eddie Robertson; the latter has sung with Roma in both the UMOJA and KUJI choruses.

“[Brigano] was doing these walks to raise money for [multiple sclerosis, or MS, research], and was talking with the men [at Chillicothe] and getting them energized and educating the rest of them around MS,” Roma said, adding that Brigano recognized Robertson in the crowd, as Robertson had been incarcerated at Warren when Brigano worked there. The two men connected over the fact that both of them have family members with MS.

When Robertson told Brigano he had written a song he wanted to record as a fundraising effort for the MS walks, they reminisced over the fact that UMOJA had recorded and sold CDs in the past, donating money to charities — then both men thought of Roma.

By last year, Roma said, her decades of work with previously established men’s choruses in correctional institutions had mostly tapered off, due in part to the pandemic and in part to changing leadership at the institutions, with new administrations no longer supporting the choruses.

“I said to myself after COVID, ‘I’m not going to go back in unless something happens,’” Roma said.

And something did happen: Brigano introduced Roma to Chillicothe’s warden, who allowed her to start a small “pick-up choir” to sing in support of Brigano’s MS walks. Through ways and means — and a lot of paperwork — Roma was able to grow the pick-up choir into a full chorus with 27 men, including Robertson.

“I thought the beginning of COVID was the end of my experience with prison choruses,” Roma said. “So I was overjoyed — I was ecstatic. The group is really so much fun to work with.”

The NIA Men’s Chorus rehearses once a week, for two hours, and Roma said its members show up for every rehearsal — which, she added, is unique in her experience. Since the formation of the chorus, its members have performed several times for its residents and outside guests, including with the World House Choir earlier this year.

“They’re people in their 20s to their 70s, they’re Black and white, they’re gay and straight, some have a college degree and others can barely write,” Roma said. “They’re not all best friends with each other, but they interact in the choir, and everybody’s accepted, everybody’s equal. Everybody’s a person.”

She added: “I call them by their first names — they never get called by their first names.”

Roma pointed to a narrative element in “Les Miserables,” in which protagonist Jean Valjean, a former felon, is ruthlessly pursued throughout the story by correctional officer Javert, who insists on calling Valjean by the number assigned to him when he was incarcerated, only referring to him as “Prisoner 24601.”

“And these men get told that when they come in — they’re not really a person, they’re a number,” Roma said.

Most of the members of NIA Men’s Chorus, Roma said, were not largely familiar with musicals before rehearsing for this month’s performance — but they had no trouble relating to the story of “Les Misérables” and its themes.

“It was a piece of cake in a way, because it was just so familiar,” she said. “It was fun for them — especially ‘Master of the House,’ which is a fun song, with [comedic] references that were familiar. And it was theater, so they could get into it — it resonated with them.”

At the same time, Roma said participating in the chorus is a balm for both the men’s mental health — which is so often not adequately supported in correctional institutions — and their sense of humanity. The men so often “want to be good,” Roma said — Chillicothe residents have, so far, donated more than $7,000 to Tony Brigano’s MS walks — but it can be difficult when few see them that way. As Jean Valjean sings after he is released from prison: “Like a cur, I walk the street — the dirt beneath their feet.”

“Their life — basically 24/7 — what they’re experiencing is deprivation,” she said. “And some of these men have committed horrendous crimes — but they want to do positive things, they want to connect. And they show up for rehearsal.”

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