Prison ‘Oz’: Dorothy in drag, felons are Munchkins

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CINCINNATI (AP) - There may be no tougher crowd in the world than a room filled with inmates and guards. These people are hard by definition and necessity. On a recent Tuesday, they sat waiting for the curtain to rise on the prison stage.

When it did, there was Dorothy, a 6-foot-4-inch African American man doing eight years in the Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe. Dorothy wore braids and a blue dress, and Toto was sitting by her side.

The sniggering and eye-rolling began immediately, then it turned louder and more derisive.

Dorothy, something of a diva, let the laughter subside. Then she started to sing with a voice of resounding beauty about a land she once heard of in a lullaby, about chimney tops and lemon drops and wanting to fly away. “Why oh, why, can’t I?”

The crowd instantly grew quiet.

This production was the idea of Darwin Secrest, a corrections officer with 20 years of experience and a well-earned reputation as a “hard ass,” according to both him and the prisoners.

“I was sitting in Block 1A, looking at some of the characters we had there, and I heard some singing, and I thought, ‘We have enough talent here to put on a play.’”

Secrest wrote down the idea, put it in his pocket and eventually passed it on to the administration. The warden said go ahead and try. This was never going to be easy. Secrest needed guys to try out. He needed to get them to read the original book, then watch the movie and then create a play that worked inside a prison. Only then would there be rehearsals and set-building and costume-sewing.

The idea of working with the inmates is practical. It will make them better inmates, and it will make them better citizens when they get out. And they are getting out. “One of these days they might be sitting next to you at your kid’s softball game. That’s just the truth of it. We need to do something with them.”

The palace guards were originally costumed like the ones in the movie, in gray tunics. That had to change once they were made, and it was clear they looked too much like real prison guard uniforms.

The money for the production, some supplies and the sewing machines to make costumes and sets did not come from taxpayers. The production was funded entirely from commissary sales and vending machines from the visiting area.

Secrest says there are two types of reactions when he explains the play to guards or his neighbors. “People either have an immediate understanding, or an immediate dislike.”

Some of the other guards said it could never be done. “A couple of the guys said, ‘All you got is some faggots and some chomos, and no money. Good luck.’” Chomos is a prison term for child molesters.

Making a musical does not initially seem consistent with Secrest’s tough-guy reputation. He said that is not true.

“This play is a chance to work hard and follow the rules and do something positive with their life. I will show them respect if they earn it. To me this makes perfect sense.”

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