The Buddha said, “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.”
The end of suffering is something that Keith Freeman — a former drug dealer, convict, alcoholic and crack addict — has been after for decades.
And after taking part in an intense, five-month program at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts that connected former prisoners and homeless veterans with ancient Buddhist artwork, Freeman thinks he may have taken a step closer to enlightenment.
The group is hosting 15 performances in the Pulitzer’s galleries featuring rookie actors speaking scripts culled from their own group sessions as they wrestled with Buddhist truths and their own demons.
Growing up, Freeman’s father was absent and his mother was often sick, so he raised his four younger brothers and sisters. But by the time he was 15, he had quit school, fallen in with the wrong crowd and was stealing from freight trains. By 17, he was locked up in the state penitentiary for a year. Before he was 30, he returned to prison, this time for selling drugs.
Freeman spent the next two decades in what he now can identify as a state of trishna, or craving for sense pleasures. Trishna is one of Buddhism’s Noble Truths, and the source of all suffering, the source of self-annihilation.
“It was a battle between living and wanting,” Freeman said. “I fought that battle for a long time.”
Last year, he entered an outpatient drug program at the St. Patrick Center, a homeless service center in St. Louis. Last fall, caseworkers chose Freeman and 16 others who had auditioned for the Pulitzer’s “Staging Reflections of the Buddha” program.
The original pool of actors was chosen for their willingness to open themselves up to something new, and to experience the vulnerability that comes with acting, said Emily Piro, who coordinated the “Staging” project for St. Patrick.
Emily Pulitzer, founder and director of the Pulitzer Foundation, said the project was conceived to “build bridges between audiences and art, and between parts of the community.”
The goal, she said, was to teach the participants “how to articulate ideas, and how to trust.”
Most of the participants are clients of the St. Patrick Center, but a few are veterans of St. Louis-based Prison Performing Arts. Another nonprofit group helps the actors with resumes and other job skills.
The Pulitzer Foundation’s current exhibit, “Reflections of the Buddha” includes 22 Buddhist pieces from Afghanistan, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.
In the Pulitzer’s galleries and classrooms, the actors meditated and wrote haiku. A series of game-playing and improv exercises fostered teamwork and communication skills.
The improv sessions led to the scripts the actors are performing for the public, as staffers sat nearby, furiously typing the actors’ thoughts on laptops.
For many of the Christian and Muslim actors, the experience was their first exposure to 2,500-year-old Buddhist philosophies. Along the way, social workers tracked the sessions and met with the group separately to connect the dots between the art and the actors’ lives.