The Cast of Life Jacket Theatre Company’s production of AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

You may be familiar with the fact that registered sex offenders have to appear on an online registry or disclose their criminal status to neighbors or employers. But in Florida, a state deemed “the harshest state for sex offenders,” that’s just a sampling of the restrictions these people deemed the lowest of the low are saddled with post-conviction. When you can’t live within 1,000 feet of places like schools and parks and the world has cast eternal aspersions on you, where can you go? For those in or near the tiny city of Pahokee, Florida, there’s Miracle Village, an isolated community in the midst of the sugarcane, waiting with open arms.

While Miracle Village has been subject to a bevy of portrayals, from photo series to longform articles, only one group has taken to the stage to tell this unconventional story. After about three years of in-depth interviews, research, and development, Life Jacket Theater Company is presenting America Is Hard To See, a play with music running at Tribeca’s HERE Arts Center that portrays Miracle Village’s residents using their actual words.

Rather than use this concept as a jumping-off point to write a fictional story, the show’s playwright Travis Russ and composer Priscilla Holbrook did not provide their own plot. They didn’t have to.

Ken Barnett and Amy Gaither Hayes in Life Jacket Theatre Company’s production of AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

“Their lives were already so interesting I didn’t feel the need to invent anything,” says Russ, who has a background in ethnography and wrote, directed, and set designed the show. “We certainly took theatrical liberties in some cases, just to make it cleaner and more coherent.” His mantra, he says, was “honoring the truth of who they are in the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Though the play runs around 90 minutes, they started with “thousands of pages of transcripts” of interviews with the village’s residents and neighbors, plus court records and other pieces of research. From there, they zeroed in on the “interesting moments” of the interviews, hoping a story would emerge.

That it did. If you didn’t know Russ and Holbrook (whose folksy songs impressively utilize only verbatim text) didn’t fabricate their storyline, it’d be easy to assume they did. The central arc of the play hinges largely upon a disgraced choir teacher, Chad, who got too close to a young student and lives in Miracle Village after unintentionally confessing his crimes to a conversion therapy worker.

Chad and several of his fellow residents end up involved with the local church by way of the open-minded Pastor Patti. The eventual exposure of their identities as offenders leads to controversy in the church’s community, but ultimately Patti is able to unite the village residents and the neighboring churchgoers through a shared appreciation for religion and worship music. Subplots include the pastor’s college-age daughter Lexi beginning a relationship with Chris, a resident who was convicted for having a 14-year-old girlfriend, which persists even after a parole violation sends him back to jail.

Rather than leave their subjects behind once the research was done, Russ and his team have stayed in contact with the Miracle Village residents, and some of them even attended the show.

“I can’t imagine what it was like for [Lexi], to see her words on stage, being portrayed by this other person who barely knows her. I have a lot of respect for all of them, they’re really brave to be speaking so honestly about the subject,” Gareth Tidball, who plays the pastor’s daughter, tells me. “I say they have the short end of the stick and I’m stuck with the easy art part.”

David Spadora, Gareth Tidball and Amy Gaither Hayes in Life Jacket Theatre Company’s production of AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

“I had the opportunity to connect with Chad, the character I play, while he was here,” says actor Ken Barnett. “It was interesting to hear him address what parts of the performance felt really spot-on and what felt a little bit untrue. There’s a scene where Pastor Patti and I are alone in the church after the first experiment of having the congregations together, and I start laughing and fall on the floor. And he said, I would have never fallen on the floor in that church! That was his complaint.”

“We never wanted any of the real people to say, ‘I opened myself to you and you just exploited my material,’” says Holbrook. “We were just really deeply touched by the act of saying, ‘Here, this is my story in all its flaws, I trust you. I don’t know why I trust you, but I trust you.’”

Practitioners of Christianity, despite their talk of acceptance, are experienced by many as more bigoted than most. That’s another reason America Is Hard To See feels unique; the open-mindedness demonstrated by the pastor character is a rare instance of a work that isn’t pushing a Christian agenda showcasing Christianity as it technically should be practiced.

“Someone I didn’t know very well came up to me after [the show] and said, ‘I’m an atheist but I got drawn into the fact that only in a community of religious people would there be that kind of forgiveness,’” says Tidball. “It was fascinating talking with her, because I think she’s right.”

The Cast of Life Jacket Theatre Company’s production of AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

“This is often an actor’s task, the exercise in finding and nurturing compassion for a person or people for whom you wouldn’t immediately think you’d have compassion. That has been a really beautiful part of the process, and largely what’s so moving about the play,” says Barnett. “There’s always an aspect of that [in acting], but in this case, it’s almost the whole experience.”

I would be remiss not to mention the fact that America Is Hard To See is running at a time in which the #MeToo movement has been in full swing for months. While the current cultural moment is centered on outing and blacklisting abusers, this play takes a look at a possible future much further down the line, investigating the potential for some sort of second chance.

“We had no idea when we embarked on this what the world would be doing in January 2018,” says Holbrook. “It’s shining a light. And we feel like this play is shining a different kind of light. It’s a hazy, murky light.”

It may seem that any sex offender cast off by society can find refuge within the sugarcane, that Miracle Village truly is a safe haven for all. But like so much of this story, it’s not so clear-cut. As per a statement from Miracle Village to The Guardian, they “do not offer housing to criminals with a background as a serial rapist nor do [they] accept medically diagnosed pedophiles.”

“I think it’s interesting, who is welcome. We talked about the philosophy [that] all are welcome in church, but not all are welcome in Miracle Village,” says Russ. “There is a hierarchy.”

America Is Hard To See continues through February 24 at HERE Arts Center.