Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, written and performed by Billy Hayes and currently at St. Luke’s Theatre, is a profound and illuminating theatrical experience that will leave you uplifted and inspired.
Directed by John Gould Rubin, the production is a reexamination of Hayes’s experiences in Turkey in the 1970s, when he was smuggling hashish, caught, and given a life sentence in a Turkish prison. Some of the gruesome aspects of the story were chronicled in the film Midnight Express.
Many were not. This Off Broadway production sheds a bright light on events the film left out, some harrowing and some magnificent. Though the film was based loosely on Hayes’s book Midnight Express, whole swaths of experience were eliminated and fabrications added. This show is Hayes’ revelation about the full truth of his past and how it influenced his journey into the present.
Since Hayes’s solo performance relates to the film, it is necessary to review why the impact of this one-man show is so vital by comparison. When it was released in 1978, Midnight Express received worldwide acclaim and garnered 16 awards including two for Best Writing (screenplay based on material from another medium) and Best Music (original score). It even received a Golden Globe for Best Picture in the category of Drama. If they didn’t read the book, people believed Oliver Stone’s screenplay. It portrayed Hayes’s rollicking jaunt to Turkey, his arrest, his unjust trial, and his ghoulish nightmare after being sentenced to a life in the abomination of desolation: the Turkish prison. The audience was kept in suspense and horror watching the character’s devolution in prison and his nullifying flirtation with insanity. When Hayes unbelievably escapes, easily walking out into freedom without being seen by anyone, the audience feels tremendous relief that the hell is over and Hayes is free.
In Hayes’s live performance we discover that this “walk-out” did not happen, and what did was far more frightening. Indeed, his real escape to freedom took much longer and was a desperate, gripping survival story. As Hayes relates it, we cannot help but be astounded by each miraculous event that, domino-style, brought him closer to freedom. The “walk-out” as presented by the filmmakers was sheer Hollywood gloss and actually a diminution of Hayes’s character, resourcefulness and inner strength.
What particularly makes his one-man show so engrossing and compelling is Hayes‘s natural spontaneity. With his fine acting talents (he is a writer, actor and director), he aptly conveys the full import of and real events relating to his capture, arrest, trial, prison time and incredible escape. What is equally edifying is the discussion of his life afterward and his personal growth as an individual, a social advocate and a culturally dynamic American.
As we watch Hayes deliver his unexpurgated account, we are able to receive it in the entirety of its depth and detail. Unencumbered by any restraints, Hayes finally has free reign. Through his vibrant descriptions and vivid language we understand his thoughts, his unique perspectives; we come to know the mind of Billy Hayes. His performance is one of unbounded clarity. Hayes expresses the soul of an age that is current and ongoing. To say the message is life-giving is an understatement.
As we receive the truth of his presence, the deep issues and themes of freedom, love, enlightenment and growth become more real and heartfelt than what the film ever could convey. Indeed, Hayes understands the essence of his life’s journey. We recognize its vitality and note that it has far-reaching implications for our culture and society today. With great courage Hayes bares his soul and our souls follow, opened to his immeasurable riches of spirit. The film was a mere shadow of what he effects and gives us in this performance over 35 years later.
Whether it was intentioned or not, the film was a cautionary tale that delivered lessons about the Muslim world and more specifically, Turkey. First, that Turkey was a brutal country and its prisons cesspits; one should not travel there as a lark to flout the laws. Second, that Turkish justice was no justice.
Considering U.S. politics in the 1970s, the film was a boon for American culture, and Billy Hayes was a hero. The film encouraged a feeling of patriotism (at a time when the culture needed this). Against Turkey and other Muslim countries, it spawned a host of travel warnings for Americans abroad. In its associative portrayal of hashish and marijuana, it was a negative advertisement. Though marijuana and hashish, its concentrated form, were plant-based drugs, un-patentable and used medicinally and recreationally across many cultures for millennia, Nixon’s “war on drugs” (related to Hayes’ prison sentence) sealed their doom. In the Q&A after his performance, Hayes’s commentary about the film’s impact (related to marijuana’s illegality, and many other issues) was fascinating.
Why filmmakers re-characterized Hayes’s experiences in prison, the Turkish court, and especially his escape is up for conjecture. In any case, the reality of what actually occurred as Hayes relates in his solo performance inspires hope, courage and peace. If that message was not politically or culturally efficacious for the time, so be it. But now a new generation of individuals will be exposed to the story. Its truth and its reckoning have finally come. This is a performance not to be missed.
Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes is being presented by Barbara Ligeti with Jeffrey Altshuler and Edmund Gaynes. Co-producers are Jonathan Chang, Jann Cobler, Exodus Broadway and Joseph Trent Siff. The production is running through March 23 at St. Luke’s Theatre on 308 West 46th Street.