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Ray Hill wrestles with prison, love, hate, wardens

Within the blackened stone walls of the deserted Eastern State Penitentiary, a drama pulled from the pages of real life was performed this past week. Ray Hill: The Prison Years, a one-man play starring the man whose name the show bears, is all about a man who was sentenced to 160 years in prison but got out in just over four.

According to Hill, in the late 1960s he went on a string of “non-violent crimes against property,” as he repeatedly calls them in the play. For this he was ordered to serve 20 eight-year terms, consecutively, until an appeal shortened that immensely.

But the sentencing and eventual release were not the primary focus of Hill’s 90-minute monologue, which was punctuated by sound and lighting effects as he moved across the prison hall floor talking.

Rather, the story was mostly about the time Hill spent in Texas prisons, rising in the prison ranks and taking advantage of the system, until he realized he was no better than those wardens who mistreated him and the rest of the prisoners.

The play also weaved in the thread of Hill’s homosexuality, treading a little too closely to prison-movie stereotypes.

So many Eastern-related people are involved in the play, it feels like an Eastern Theatre production. Mark Hallen, director of the Eastern Theatre, directed; Gregory Carafelli, who did the set design for the Laramie Project and the Glass Menagerie here, was the set designer. Seniors Liz Carlson and Julie van Dusen, both veterans of multiple Eastern productions, were part of the team as well.

Ray Hill: The Prison Years ran September 7-11 at the Eastern State Penitentiary and September 13-14 at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival Theatre.

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