Nicaraguan Prisoners: From the Cell to the Stage

A group of prisoners became the actors in “Cain and the dogs,” a play that delves into the weight of guilt

"We felt free for a moment." From the play Cain and the Dogs by Mick Sarria. Foto: Carlos Herrera/confidencial
“We felt free for a moment.” From the play Cain and the Dogs by Mick Sarria. Foto: Carlos Herrera/confidencial


By Cinthia Membreño  (

HAVANA TIMES – A strong smell of garlic permeated the Pilar Aguirre Theater. Someone was atoning for their guilt by crushing entire heads of this plant with their feet, with such force and precision that the cloves were scattered across the floor. The man behind this calamity had no face, but the movements of his body spoke of deep pain.

The performer was Mick Sarria, a young actor and director who reflects on the human condition via the play “Cain and the dogs”, an innovative theater production that also showcased a group of prisoners – not as people on the fringe of society by as performing artists. These actors went from their cells to the stage at the hands of the director.

Sarria, director of the Lleca Theater Company, spent six months training 12 prisoners from the Leon Penitentiary who had records of good behavior. The result of that work – which also involved gaining the trust of those deprived of their freedom – was presented last December in the Ruben Dario Theater, the largest theater venue in Nicaragua. It was the last stop on a national tour that was held through the project “Beyond the bars”, an initiative that promotes the economic, social and cultural rights of prisoners.

Drawing from the Biblical story, Sarria’s play depicts the grotesque scene in which Cain kills Abel, without any dialogue. The difference is that in this version, the first son of Adam and Eve – a young man with a shaven head, prominent muscles and black lips – has as witnesses a group of furious dogs that he has subdued by force. The pack of dogs are the ones charged with receiving the emaciated body of Abel and accompanying it in a tortuous stations of the cross that reflects Cain’s repentance after committing the first murder in the history of humankind according to the sacred canons of Christianity and Judaism.

In Sarria’s play, Cain beats his chest while the dogs carry the body of his brother. Jorge, a seventeen-year-old who has been in the Leon jail for 15 months, played Abel. For him, getting involved in this art has been a complex process. No words were used in the play he participated in, so that he had to learn to manipulate silence and control his body. The youth went from not understanding the script to comprehending that his effort was transforming society’s image of prisoners. “We’re proving to people that we can change. We’ve stumbled a lot, but we also learned to get back up again,” he remarked when the play was over.

The theater has given a certain freedom to this group of Leon residents who are serving sentences that range from two to five years. “Many categorize us as scum, as parasites on society. When we would leave the penitentiary in the van people would yell after us: ‘There go the prisoners!’ This would affect us since – it isn’t a no-brainer that we’re all human beings and can make mistakes? But to go from being locked within four walls to visiting a rehearsal space was the most important thing for us. We felt free, even if it was only for a moment,” affirmed Jorge, who also writes music and has surprised his mother with his artistic abilities.

The play “Cain and the dogs” is composed of twelve scenes and represented a kind of catharsis for the actors and their director. Mick Sarria assured that working with those deprived of their freedom arose as a need to find himself after suffering the disillusionment of his parents’ separation. “It’s not because I harbored a desire to save youth from darkness, thinking that I was the one in the light. Not at all. Rather, I had to find people who had a need to tell us something. Jail caused me to rethink my aesthetic path and my path towards honesty,” explained the director who has been working with prisoners since 2009.

The youth that Sarria collaborated with had the support of the Juvenile Affairs Bureau of the Police in Leon. Although the prison offers classes for learning English and cooking classes, as well as technical courses to learn cell phone repair, this is the first time that the institution has promoted the arts as a way to improve the lives of the inmates. Some of them, like Jairo Antonio Roa, had to wash the clothes of other inmates to earn enough money for his transportation to the other areas of Nicaragua where they would present the play.

The director stated that during the last six months the young performers would tell him of their surprise at being recognized from another perspective. They’re not a media show anymore, he notes, but an artistic group. “In the encounters they come face to face with the spectators, the cameras, the journalists. Other possibilities open for them, it’s a change,” Sarria indicated.

For 2016, Lleca Theater is planning to commemorate the life of Ruben Dario. They’ll break out of the conventional narrative centered on the intellectual side of the Father of Modernism, and will represent a different face of that human being. “It’ll be Dario as a man who drinks and craps, not the illuminated poet,” the director promised.