Prison reform poet, horn band slated for Coe College performances


Reginald Dwayne Betts, a formerly incarcerated teenager who has become a celebrated poet, lawyer and activist, will perform poetry in his act “Felon: An American Washi Tale” at Coe College on Sept. 28, 2023. (Tyler Sperrazza)
Reginald Dwayne Betts, a formerly incarcerated teenager who has become a celebrated poet, lawyer and activist, will perform poetry in his act “Felon: An American Washi Tale” at Coe College on Sept. 28. (Tyler Sperrazza)

CEDAR RAPIDS — For decades, Coe College has drawn nationally recognized musicians, performers and speakers to Cedar Rapids. With two engaging new acts, this year’s lineup will be no exception.

With a Sept. 28 and March 1 performance, two new acts will bring a spectrum from introspective poetry on universal themes to upbeat jazz fusion.

“Both of our Marquis guests exemplify the mission of the series, which is to bring intellectually and culturally enriching performances to campus for the benefit of the whole community,” said Zen Cohen, Marquis committee member and assistant professor of art and film studies at Coe College. “In reviewing possible guests, both Reginald Dwayne Betts and The Huntertones stood out in the quality of their performance, but also their openness to meet with students in class as part of their visit.”

If you go

Where: Sinclair Auditorium on First Avenue NE at Coe College, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids

When: Reginald Dwayne Betts will perform at 7 p.m. Sept. 28; Huntertones will perform at 7 p.m. March 1, 2024

Cost: $15 for the general public and $10 for those over 55; free for Coe College students, faculty and staff

Details: For more information or to purchase tickets, visit coe.edu/why-coe/events/marquis-series, or call the Coe College Box Office at (319) 399-8600. Tickets also will be available at the door the night of each event.

Poetry from a prison reform advocate

At 16 years old, Reginald Dwayne Betts was in prison serving a nine-year sentence. Now 42, he has graduated from Yale Law School, become a Macarthur Fellow (known as the “genius grant”) and written four collections of critically acclaimed poetry challenging society’s notions of justice.

After work in public defense, years of criminal justice reform advocacy and his own experience as a teenager in maximum security prisons, he was appointed by former President Barack Obama to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. More recently, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont appointed him to the Criminal Justice Commission, the body responsible for hiring prosecutors in his home state.

“Felon: An American Washi Tale,” the performance he’s been touring to deliver since 2019, weaves theater, poetry, fine art and Japanese paper making aesthetic principals into a meditation of his own experiences being incarcerated and his work to free friends still serving decades in prison.

“One way I think about the show is what does it mean to confront one man grappling with what he has to grapple with to make it through the world,” said Betts. “A lot of the (expletive) I’m grappling with in the show … is all the things we all grapple with.”

Through a format that makes the spectator feel part of an intimate conversation over a coffee table, with a friend at a bar or as a bystander eavesdropping, all of those themes — fatherhood, violence, love, loss, obligation, duty — are seen through the spectrum of how prison affects what it means to be human.


Reginald Dwayne Betts, a formerly incarcerated teenager who has become a celebrated poet, lawyer and activist, will perform poetry in his act “Felon: An American Washi Tale” at Coe College on Sept. 28, 2023. (Mamadi Doumbouya)
Reginald Dwayne Betts, a formerly incarcerated teenager who has become a celebrated poet, lawyer and activist, will perform poetry in his act “Felon: An American Washi Tale” at Coe College on Sept. 28. (Mamadi Doumbouya)

And all of it can resonate with anyone — ex-felon or not — because the circumference of the prison system in America leaves virtually no one untouched, he said.

“Everybody knows somebody that’s in prison — that’s an American problem. If not, you know somebody that’s been arrested. The numbers are so egregiously wild,” Betts said. “Prison is a specter in our lives not just as a physical space — it’s a specter in our lives because prison is a metaphor for violence, destruction and suffering. We all know those things … and we know people who suffer from the things prison represents.”

By ignoring and diverting attention from the source of the pain, the man who has performed poetry at the intersection of art and advocacy since 2010 said prison has become a repository for violence, mental health challenges, poverty and addiction at the root of many crimes.

“We act like (prison) is a problem around race, poverty or systemic oppression instead of being an American dilemma,” Betts said. “It means we don’t put forth the resources required to deal with it.”

He hones his poetry, delivered over an 85-minute performance, to offer things anyone can hold onto on an emotional or psychological level.

During his visit, he will support Coe’s Prison Learning Initiative by meeting with students from the social and criminal justice and African American studies programs.

“People will resonate with Reginald Dwayne Betts’ story of perseverance,” Cohen said. “We hope his visit will inspire the Cedar Rapids community to learn more about justice reform and the effects of incarceration on families and communities.”

Horn-driven band showcases genre-bending compositions


Huntertones, a Brooklyn, New York-based jazz fusion band known for genre-bending compositions and unconventional covers, will return to Iowa to perform at Coe College on March 1, 2024. (Greg Burg)
Huntertones, a Brooklyn, New York-based jazz fusion band known for genre-bending compositions and unconventional covers, will return to Iowa to perform at Coe College on March 1, 2024. (Greg Burg)

With a saxophone, trombone, trumpet and an occasional sousaphone, Huntertones tends to defy genre categorization.

Midwesterners at heart, the six-man band originally formed by students at The Ohio State University in Columbus will return to Iowa in March, after a previous July appearance at the Iowa City Jazz Festival.

Pulling influences from jazz, rock ’n’ roll, soul, pop, gospel and hip-hop, no two shows are alike for the band that has performed across the country and the world in 25 other countries, delivering high energy music that tends to be instrumental but can’t resist covers, either.

“Essentially, we’re doing original music we write that’s influenced by a lot of the things we grew up listening to — everything from Aretha Franklin to Steely Dan to Radiohead,” said Jon Lampley, trumpet and sousaphone player for Huntertones. “We’ve found a way to funnel all our musical interests through the sound of the band.”

As a result, their audiences tend to be as diverse as their influences.

Engine Co., their latest album released in April, captures a new type of musical honesty with every instrument recorded at once rather than in conventional layers of instruments playing their own part and edited, bringing the same authenticity audiences experience at their shows.


Huntertones, a Brooklyn, New York-based jazz fusion band known for genre-bending compositions and unconventional covers, will return to Iowa to perform at Coe College on March 1, 2024. (Karston Tannis)
Huntertones, a Brooklyn, New York-based jazz fusion band known for genre-bending compositions and unconventional covers, will return to Iowa to perform at Coe College on March 1, 2024. (Karston Tannis)

“What we wanted to capture was us interacting with each other and being in the same room, moving and breathing with each other musically,” Lampley said. “The heart of what we do is playing on stage together in the moment. A lot of the music we play is improvised.”

That improv generates surprises and fresh energy with each show. And when they play covers of other songs, they make a concerted effort to make them very different from the original.

“We find a way to make original music accessible. Pulling from songs that are tried and true,” he said. “People hear bits and pieces of rock ’n’ roll from Led Zeppelin, or rap from Chance the Rapper … and it creates a new synthesis.”

Carter Broszeit, Coe technical director and Marquis committee member, said audiences will love the Huntertones’ upbeat energy and distinct covers.

“The Huntertones are well known, and many area students who are in their schools’ jazz programs, including Coe’s own jazz band, may have had the chance to perform their music. It makes for a really cool experience when students get to see the people who composed the music they’re performing,” said Broszeit.

Comments: (319) 398-8340; elijah.decious@thegazette.com

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