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Musical adaptation of ‘Writing Our Way Out’ to debut Friday with free concert

A VCU music professor adapted “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail,” a book by a VCU English professor and 10 former inmates of Richmond’s jail, to share their stories through the power of music.

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VCU student Yasmine Scott and the VCU Commonwealth Singers rehearse for Friday's concert, “Open Minds: Music that Mends." (Photos by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

The VCU Commonwealth Singers will perform a new musical adaptation of “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail” (Brandylane Publishers), a 2015 book written by David Coogan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of English, and 10 men who took a writing class led by Coogan while incarcerated at the Richmond City Jail.

The concert, “Open Minds: Music that Mends,” will be performed by the VCU Commonwealth Singers and Women’s Choir at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 6, at the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall in the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Ave. The concert will be free and open to the public.

In addition to a variety of music addressing themes of sorrow, love and social justice, the concert will include the public premiere of the composition, “Open Minds, Closer Thoughts,” an adaptation of “Writing Our Way Out,” written by Antonio García, professor of music and director of jazz studies in the Department of Music in the VCU School of the Arts.

Antonio García, professor of music and director of jazz studies in the Department of Music in the VCU School of the Arts, wrote the music and adapted the text of "Writing Our Way Out." During a rehearsal of "Open Minds, Closer Thoughts," García offered notes and feedback.
Antonio García, professor of music and director of jazz studies in the Department of Music in the VCU School of the Arts, wrote the music and adapted the text of "Writing Our Way Out." During a rehearsal of "Open Minds, Closer Thoughts," García offered notes and feedback.

“Incarcerated individuals are far from our thoughts, almost literally the last thing on our minds,” García said. “It's easier to go about our daily lives that way. But if we're going to reduce crime, we have to deal with its root causes in our community — locally and beyond. Dr. David Coogan's book inspired me to focus ‘closer thoughts’ on these causes — and on the hope for individual and community redemption — in my own ‘open mind,’ our students', and yours.”

“Writing Our Way Out” is a work of creative nonfiction that tells the stories of the former jail inmates, exploring the conditions, traps and turning points on their paths to imprisonment, as well as the redemptive and rehabilitative power of memoir. The book’s themes of social justice, healing, self-reflection and redemption are also found in “Open Minds: Music that Mends,” but conveyed through the power of music.

“If you don't have family members, neighbors and friends whose lives have been darkened by drug abuse, child abuse or resultant crimes, you are extraordinarily fortunate,” García said. “If as a society we're going to lessen the number of citizens victimized by crime, we have to understand better the tragic path their offenders took to jail; we can't ignore this city within a city. Once inmates have served their time, they become our neighbors: so addressing crimes' causes before the act takes place is in everyone's best interests.”

Coogan, a professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said he and his co-authors are honored their book has been transformed into a powerful and inspiring piece of music.

“I did get to hear a preview, and it humbles me to know that our book inspired such beautiful and insightful music,” he said. “As an amateur musician and the brother of a professional musician, I know that some things in life can only be expressed musically. Words are not enough. It's really gratifying, then, to experience the stories this way that my co-authors and I labored over in new ways that can only be expressed in music.”

Erin Freeman, who holds a joint position as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus and Director of Choral Activities at VCU, leads the VCU Commonwealth Singers during a rehearsal of “Open Minds, Closer Thoughts."
Erin Freeman, who holds a joint position as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus and Director of Choral Activities at VCU, leads the VCU Commonwealth Singers during a rehearsal of “Open Minds, Closer Thoughts."

Erin Freeman, director of the Commonwealth Singers, director of choral activities for the Department of Music and director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, has been collaborating on the project and will be directing Friday’s concert.

“We know that the audience will leave this concert with a deeper understanding of lives that are so unlike their own,” Freeman said. “But we also hope that they will be transformed by the fact that we are all very similar in our need to love and be loved, our difficulty in overcoming our past, and our hope for a brighter future. The shared experience of the music of this concert, for performers and audience alike, further highlights the idea that we are more alike than different — and hopefully will help generate continued compassion towards each other.”

Following Friday’s concert, there will be a discussion featuring García, Coogan and Freeman, as well as formerly incarcerated co-authors of “Writing Our Way Out” Dean Turner, Kelvin Belton and Terence Scruggs. The book will be available for purchase.

Along with Coogan, Turner, Belton and Scruggs, “Writing Our Way Out” also was authored by Stanley Craddock, Karl Black, Ronald Fountain, Bradley Greene, Tony Martin, Naji Mujahid and Andre Simpson.

VCU student Trevor White rehearses a solo during a piece titled "Hot Dogs" that will be performed at Friday's concert.
VCU student Trevor White rehearses a solo during a piece titled "Hot Dogs" that will be performed at Friday's concert.

“Open Minds, Closer Thoughts” is the second artistic adaptation of “Writing Our Way Out.” In December 2016, a monologue-driven stage adaptation of the book, starring and directed by VCU students, was performed at VCU’s Shafer Street Playhouse.

The writing workshop from which “Writing Our Way Out” emerged led to the formation of Open Minds, a partnership between the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and VCU that offers dual enrollment classes at the Richmond City Justice Center for VCU students and jail residents.

This semester, Coogan is teaching a VCU class, English 366: Writing and Social Change, with 10 VCU students and nine low-level, nonviolent offenders who were diverted to the VCU classroom instead of jail. Writing Your Way Out: A Criminal Justice Diversion Program is a partnership between VCU, the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Two of the co-authors of “Writing Our Way Out,” Turner and Belton, are serving as peer mentors in Coogan’s class this semester.