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Sherrill Roland Turns Prison Time Into Performance Art

In 2012, Sherrill Roland’s life turned into a nightmare.

As he began his first year of the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, he was indicted for a series of crimes in Washington D.C. he didn’t commit. Nonetheless, he was put on trial and convicted. Roland spent the next 10 months in Washington D.C.’s notorious Central Detention Facility, before being released in 2014. A year later, new evidence emerged that exonerated Roland and his convictions were overturned.

Now Roland finds himself in a place familiar to many people who have been released from jail, struggling to readjust to the outside world. “

When I went back out into the new world, because now it’s a new world because of this experience, things like habits and proximity to people in the community, these are things I found I have to figure out how to re-enter into society again. Because I’m not as trusting as I used to be. I feel more paranoia than before. When I go out for a job interview, you go through the process of explaining your resume, but now I have a three year gap, so when asked, ‘what were you doing?’ I found myself elaborating and exaggerating by saying, ‘I was traveling,’ or, ‘I was trying to find myself and getting culture,’ in order to be the model employee for this position. That really hurt. How did I start out always telling the truth to now ‘getting my life back,’ but being in this position where now I have to lie about it. My record is completely clean, so you can’t find out what went on, but at the same time the experience isn’t erased,” Roland said.

After a period of reluctance to discuss his jail time, Roland decided to turn his experience into a performance piece, “The Jumpsuit Project, ” to help him better understand what had happened to him as well as to challenge what people think about those who have been incarcerated.

In the work, Roland returned to the UNC-Greensboro campus, where for the next four years he wore the kind of neon orange jumpsuit that he had in prison, knowing full well it would get people’s attention.

“It definitely elicited a lot of reactions. I tried to use those reactions as an opportunity to have conversations about why you reacted this way to this thing. It’s not illegal to wear an orange jumpsuit in public. So why do I get these reactions, as a person of color, as an African-American male putting on this suit and coming out into the public?” Roland said.

Wearing the jumpsuit wasn’t the only thing that Roland did to create the piece, he also created a series of rules he had to follow that approximated his prison experience.

“I was under restriction while I wore the orange jumpsuit. As a grad student, I had my own personal studio space within the art building, which I treated as my cell. I treated the art building as my block and the campus as the jail. When I’m in my cell or block I can have conversations with anybody. Anytime I left those places to go the law library or the chapel, I had to go directly there without stopping or mingling or I would be sent back to my block. These were the rules and regiments while I was incarcerated, so I applied them to the performance.”

Roland recently performed “The Jumpsuit Project” as part of the “For Freedoms” Town Hall presented by MOCA Cleveland and the City Club of Cleveland. He described the modifications he made to the piece to perform in places outside a college campus.

“The integrity of the rules are now limited to a 7x9 perimeter that I tape with orange duct tape. I can only stay within that space while wearing the orange jumpsuit and only talk to people who step inside that space with me,” Roland said.

Since graduating a year ago, Roland has performed “The Jumpsuit Project” around the country. He’s particularly excited about staging it at Georgetown University, which will mark the first time he’s returned to Washington D.C. since his incarceration.

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