February 22, 2001

muMs the Word

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If you caught my Rant column last week praising HBO’s prison drama Oz, you can imagine how excited I was to see muMs speak at RPCC last Friday night. MuMs, who plays the character Poet on the show, spoke along with his friend and roommate of seven years, Long Island University professor Michael Ladd. The lecture was entitled, “The Prison Population in America.”

One might say that the evening didn’t go exactly as planned. One might even say that it was hard to believe that the two have been good friends for seven years. Throughout the lecture, they’d cut off each other’s sentences, and argue in front of the crowd on different issues. At one point, Ladd flat out yelled at muMs, “You don’t know your goddamn literature!” Although the discussion was supposed to discuss the prison population, the best parts of the lecture were when muMs talked about how Oz reflects the real world.

He started by telling the audience how he was cast for the show. He recalls that he was reciting poetry in New York City anyplace that he could find an open mic. One night at the Poet’s Cafe, Darnell Martin, who would be directing the pilot of Oz, saw muMs perform and asked him to audition for the pilot. He was surprised, at first, since he only considered himself a poet, not an actor.

But as it turns out, the producers were trying to create a character that would speak the truth, and muMs suggested the character of Poet. “My biggest concern is not to sell out. As Poet, I can put my wisdom inside of my character’s words. I lucked out with Oz. I got a chance to kick my own poetry, not in a forum where they made me change it. I was allowed to put it out untouched and raw.”

Ladd then discussed the history of the prison system. He explained that black officers were added to the force in the 1930s, as Ladd noted, “to help act as a mediator between the white officers and the black criminals.” Today, Ladd says that there are families that have members in jail, and working for the jail system, “like a choreographed civil war.” Ladd continued to speak about the “culture of incarceration” and how he sees the media as too political.

MuMs then discussed the evolution of the show’s concept. The prison was modeled after R.P.I., a Massachusetts prison. On the show, the Oswald Correctional Facility (“Oz,” or “Em City,” as the inmates call it), includes an open recreational area between all of the cells, a gym, and a lecture hall. The idea was to create an atmosphere that was more humane. Of course, there are also the areas for the characters who don’t behave, such as death row, solitary confinement, and “the hole” (think Shawshank Redemption, but on Oz, they have to go to the hole naked).

What muMs particularly likes about the show is that it doesn’t glorify jail, it just gives a well-rounded picture of jail life. “As far as racism goes, it’s a microcosm of society, and of the unsaid. Still, it doesn’t truly represent the Asian or Latino communities in jail.”

He added that it has the biggest black cast on TV, but that they still don’t represent all of the black factions in the prison systems. One of the confrontations muMs liked the most on the show was between the characters Adebisi and Saheed, because it illustrated a controversy within the black community, not between different races.

Growing up in the Bronx, Ladd and muMs saw many people go through the prison system, as prisoners or as workers. Those that made it out alive as prisoners were seen in the community as modern day super heroes.

MuMs said this is part of the reason why the show has been successful. It speaks to many people, and satisfies our “jail-fix,” as he called it. The show represents what goes on in jails, but he joked that, “not all of the criminals are as pretty as Chris Meloni (who plays inmate Chris Keller). It’s sex and violence. There’s truth in it, but we also know it’s gonna sell.”

One of the highlights of the lecture came when muMs recited the poem that got him onto the show. It told the story of someone kidnapping the First Lady and taking her to live in the inner-city regions. He considered himself an activist when he was doing his writing. “Now I’m in prime time, so as activism goes, it’s as cool as we can get. But you have to be smart about your activism, you can’t just yell and scream on a stance,” he said.

The last part of the lecture was devoted to questions and answers about Oz. He said that they don’t sign a contract for the season, but on a per-episode basis. That way, the writers can kill off any of the characters at their own discretion, when the plot dictates. They don’t sign anything about appearing nude, but it is understood that any character can be thrown in the hole at anytime.

How has he reacted to his fame? He’s enjoying it, but there are some drawbacks. He told the story of a man who came up to him on the subway, having recognized him as Poet. The man told muMs that he sits down with his children every week to watch the show. He uses the show to scare them straight, he said, and let them see what prison is like. MuMs notes, “we’re entertainers, but we don’t want to be role models.”

Archived article by Daniel Fischer