70 Minutes on the Midnight Express

A stool and a water bottle.

That’s all Billy Hayes needs to weave a riveting 70-minute tale at the Barrow Street Theater.

Scratch that. Hayes didn’t create this tale with a needle and thread. The tale didn’t need to be woven. It was lived.

And this real-life story is probably more interesting than anything he could have dreamed up as an aspiring writer growing up on Long Island in the late 1960s.

In Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, the gray-haired writer, actor, director and ex-convict recounts his story succinctly, yet grippingly.

It began in 1969 with a big-dreaming twentysomething (himself) smuggling hashish from Istanbul to the United States as a quick way to make some money and finance his wanderlust. In the hard-to-recall days before the Transportation Security Administration and full-body scans, strapping marijuana to your body and walking onto a plane headed to JFK was apparently no big thing—and he was able to pull off the stunt multiple times. Until he didn’t.

Increased security in Istanbul after a terrorist attack in 1970 brought Hayes’ carefree drug-smuggling days to a grinding halt as he was searched before boarding a plane back to the United States. After removing two kilos (more than four pounds) of pot that were strapped to his body, customs officials transported Hayes to Sağmalcılar Prison, where he was sentenced to four years. Just 54 days before he was set to be released, Hayes stood before a court and was handed a life sentence (reduced to 30 years by the sympathetic judge).

So how did he come to stand before an audience on an Off-Broadway stage, telling his story to people who may have have read a book he penned or watched a film about his life? I’ll leave that to Hayes to tell you.

Given the 70-minute running time, Hayes is able to move things along without painting the picture of five years in prison with too broad a stroke. Imaginative language first depicts a young man exploring a beautiful city before portraying the far harsher scenes of life behind bars. The details that Hayes chooses to share with the audience range from eye-opening to heart-wrenching to humorous (a prison full of men being served beans every day?).

A number of times throughout the show, Hayes makes revelations that are shockingly honest and deep. While admitting to a sexual relationship with a Frenchman to a room full of strangers may have taken some guts, a more difficult concept to wrap one's head around is the thought that, at one point, Hayes found himself beginning to appreciate life in prison. It was there he was able to learn important truths about himself and life. Instead of sounding ludicrous, Hayes sounds intuitive and inspiring as he describes what it’s like to be always lonely but never alone, finding comfort and solace in yoga, and enjoying the sheer joy of existence.

While certainly not detached from the things that he speaks about, there are only a few key moments throughout the performance where Hayes is noticeably moved. By far the most emotional moment is when he recalls being asked to write his first letter home to his family.

Despite being scripted, Riding the Midnight Express does not sound overly rehearsed or robotic. No costumes, no set and no supporting cast are needed to keep the audience interested—though lighting does add an element of drama as it brightens and lightens along with the mood.

Hayes delivers a well-spoken, eye-opening, compelling and honest story—free from finger-pointing, anger or exaggeration.

Given the fact that I’m not a huge movie person and was born in the 1990s, is it acceptable to confess that before last night, I had never heard of Billy Hayes? Regardless, after seeing him tell his dramatic story on stage, I’m a little embarrassed about the admission.

But mainly I’m grateful that now I know. And instead of watching the dramatized Hollywood version, I got to hear it straight from the extremely well-spoken source. 

Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes plays Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at The Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow St.). Click here for tickets

Photo by Carol Rosegg 

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