“Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes” at the Barrow Street Theatre (Closed Sunday November 30, 2014

October 10, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written and Performed by Billy Hayes
Directed by Jeffrey Altshuler
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

In October 1970, on his fourth attempt to smuggle hashish from Turkey to the United States, “the blond hippie” Billy Hayes was apprehended and remanded to Sağmalcılar prison for a four year and two month sentence. Because of then President Nixon’s war on the smuggling of drugs into the United States and his pressure on countries like Turkey to stem the flow of drugs to the United States, Billy’s sentence was increased to life in prison with the reduced sentence of thirty years. Using his powers of persuasion and monetary encouragement, Billy convinced the prison psychiatrist to arrange his transferred to Imrali Island Prison – the prison with the highest escape rate in the system. From the moment he stepped into the Turkish prison, Billy was determined to escape from that prison, to “ride the midnight express.”

Mr. Hayes’ account of that escape in October of 1975 and all that preceded it is the substance of his solo performance “Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes” currently running at the Bowery Street Theatre in Manhattan’s West Village. Halfway through Mr. Hayes solo performance, it becomes clear that his story needs a wider audience and its important content might have a broader appeal as a motivational address, making rich connections between his stories to audience stories. His mantra “always lonely, never alone” is one such connection as is his rehearsal of William James’ prescription to “alter life by altering attitude.”

Every audience member can connect to “imprisonment:” imprisonment in dysfunctional relationships; in abusive relationships; in dead-end jobs; in mild to severe depression; in loss of best friends and subsequent bereavement; and in the debilitating matrix of non-productivity. And every audience member can be reminded of the significant benefits of practicing Yoga and determining to live “in the moment.” This is not to say the performance is not effective as it stands; it is suggesting that it might be more effective if re-imagined as a motivational speech (or series of speeches) perhaps in conjunction with Mr. Hayes’ book tours.

When Mr. Hayes relates the story of writing to his friend Barbara and reliving the sense-memory of “touching the paper she touched” and when he shares the deep sadness at the loss of his friend Robert “Bone” McBee, everyone in the audience experiences the times they grasped the importance of love and relationship and the extraordinary power of memory to heal and restore the spirit. Billy Hayes is a master storyteller who utilizes all the rhetorical devices of persuasion (logos, ethos, and pathos) and effectively uses imagery and figurative language to engage his audience. His remarkable story of survival is authentic and honest and needs to be heard.