One night in 1996, just a bit past his 16th birthday, Reginald Dwayne Betts, an honors student in a Maryland high school, made the worst decision of his life: He joined a friend and a few people he barely knew and went looking for someone to steal
Later that night, Betts pointed a borrowed gun at a man in a car in a mall in northern Virginia and, with a friend, took the victim’s wallet and keys and drove off in his car. Less than 24 hours later, he was arrested; several months later, he was tried and sentenced as an adult, with the judge handing him a nine-year prison term, some of which was in solitary confinement.
But fast-forward some 25 years, and Betts, 41, has turned his life around in about as dramatic a fashion as possible. Today he’s a public defense lawyer, working toward his doctorate in law at Yale University, and an acclaimed writer with a memoir, three poetry collections, and numerous long-form journalism pieces to his credit. He’s also taught poetry and previously founded a book club for at-risk young men.
He’s a regular public speaker, too, and during the last few years he’s spearheaded “Freedom Reads,” a program that brings books to prisons — because, he says, reading and writing saved his life.
Betts, now a MacArthur Fellow as well, has also adapted his most recent poetry collection, “Felon,” for a solo theatrical performance that examines a host of issues: the effect of incarceration on identity, the power of the written word, the importance of forgiveness, and the legal work he’s done to free others in prison.
On Tuesday, April 19, at 7 pm, Betts will bring his play to John M. Greene Hall at Smith College, in a performance sponsored by the college’s Poetry Center and a number of other campus programs, including The Jandon Center for Community Engagement. The production is free and open to the public, and Betts will sign copies of “Felon” afterward.
Matt Donovan, director of Smith’s Poetry Center, says the center has invited poets to campus for years to give readings. This year, the center was looking to do something different, I noted, in part because of the college’s current “Year of Democracies” initiative, a campuswide project designed to examine democracies around the world through programs, classes and events at the school.
“I knew of Dwayne’s work and I really admired it, and I thought given his personal experience and his work to reform the criminal justice system, he would be a great fit for the [Year of Democracies] theme,” Donovan said. “I was excited by the idea of him adapting ‘Felon’ for a theater piece.”
Nancy Zigler is the co-director of the college’s Center for Community Engagement, which works with students, faculty and local community partners on projects designed to promote social change. She says her office de ella, located in the same building as the Poetry Center, has previously worked with the center to schedule events of mutual interest, and the idea of bringing Betts to campus made sense to her and her colleagues de ella.
“I think students really respond to his message that education and reading gives you much more access to the world,” said Zigler, who notes that some Smith students connected to the Center for Community Engagement are, like Betts, involved in projects to provide books to prisons.
In his 2010 book “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” Betts looked back on his crime and on how expanding his love of language by writing poetry while jailed gave him a means to think. of a future — and an identity that went beyond that of a young inmate who even then couldn’t really grasp how he’d managed to mess up his life.
As Betts said in 2020 on the New York Times podcast “The Sunday Read,” when he went to court and testified about his carjacking, “I could barely articulate my regret. I couldn’t explain how a confluence of bad decisions and opportunity led me to become the caricature of a Black boy in America.”
His road to redemption began after an unknown person slipped a copy of Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” under his cell door, which spurred him to begin writing.
After serving about eight years of his sentence — he completed his GED while imprisoned — Betts found work in a Maryland bookstore, went on to earn an MFA in creative writing, and then a law degree from Yale University. In 2012, President Barak Obama appointed him to the federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
In his poetry, he’s made additional explorations of his experiences and written about the violence in prisons, the huge number of people of color behind bars, the lingering scars of incarceration, and the failures of the legal system to provide equal representation to many defendants.
In “Felon,” the winner of the NAACP Image Award and a finalist for the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Betts also looks at his life today as a husband and father in poems such as “When I Think of Tamir Rice When I’ m Driving,” a powerful work that recalls the fatal 2014 police shooting in Cleveland of a 12-year-old Black boy who was playing with a toy gun.
“This / is how misery sounds: my boys // playing in the backseat juxtaposed against / a twelve-year-old’s murder playing / in my head … I am a father driving / his Black sons to school & the death / of a Black boy rides shotgun & this // could be a funeral procession.”
Betts could not be reached for an interview. But on his website, he describes the theatrical adaptation of his recent poetry — called “Felon: An America Washi Tale” — as a “re-imagining [of] paper. A solo performance that begins with the pages of a book being slid into a cell … I weave traditional theater, poetry, fine art, and Japanese paper making aesthetic principles into a meditation on my own experiences of incarceration and my legal work to free friends that are still in prison.”
The set, he explains, has been designed from “prison paper” that in turn has been constructed “from the clothes of men I first met in prison, each of whom were still in prison during the earliest stages of this project.”
Donovan, the Smith Poetry Center director, says online access to the April 19 performance will be available for people still reading about attending indoor public events. But, he added, “I’m hoping we have a good [live] turnout for this. [Betts] you have a really powerful story to tell.”
In a short video about Betts that was filmed last year when he won a MacArthur Fellowship — the “genius grant” of $625,000 over five years — Betts says he named his last poetry collection “Felon” in part to reflect on how his own life has continued to be affected by his teenage crime. In the past, he says, he lost scholarship opportunities, was turned down from renting apartments, and had friendships wither “because folks recognized me as a felon.”
“I think what has to change is the way in which this society, the community, we imagine that we might change, that we might transform,” he says. “I’m not trying to run from the crime I committed. But I am trying to say that I hope people can imagine that I am more than that moment.”