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'Riding the Midnight Express' Strips Down Billy Hayes's Famous Tale

Billy Hayes performs a one-man show detailing his iconic escape from a Turkish prison.

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Billy Hayes's story has been told in a trilogy of books, an Oscar-winning motion picture and a still forthcoming documentary. But just as each of these presentations has added something more to the unbelievable tale of a young American busted for smuggling marijuana and escaping from a Turkish prison, so does the new play version, Riding the Midnight Express. In fact, in this one-man show, you get to hear Billy Hayes himself, live and in person, tell you what really happened.

An Unbelievable Journey

The 70-minute show has no set, no costume changes and no other performers, but that doesn't keep it from being thrilling and even cinematic. As Hayes talks, the extraordinary images are recreated in your mind—a whirlwind of butterflies, the man forcing the oars of his rowboat across the water away from prison or the inmates of the asylum slowly trudging in endless circles. This insider's look at the day-to-day realities of prison life is both chilling and strangely uplifting, as it is clear just how much good he has taken from his experiences.

The play takes you step by step from Hayes's first trip to Istanbul, through his fateful day stopped at airport security with hashish taped to his body, to his placement in jail and feelings of shame and disgust. We hear about attempted escapes that only end in heartbreak, the crushing moment in the retrial in which he is sentenced to another 30 years in jail and the trek across Turkey that eventually brings him freedom. Though the play lacks some of what are surely fascinating details about Hayes's spiritual journey, that sense of peace and enlightenment shines through the entire tale.

Finding Humor and Finding Peace

Riding the Midnight Express is in many ways a dark and disturbing story, but there are still moments of humor. From Hayes's recognition of his own youthful stupidity to the almost comic refrain of Turks offering him hashish everywhere he goes, this is a show with a bite. Unlike Midnight Express, the movie version of the story which contains a scathing depiction of the Turkish people, Hayes in this version greatly respects the country, leveling his criticisms instead at the American War on Drugs that coerced Turkey into establishing such severe drug penalties.

This is a story of humility and inner strength, and nothing can match the respect and humanity of sitting in a room with the man himself as he tells you his story. Hayes doesn't try to act 23, the age he was at his arrest, instead letting his words recreate the era. But that doesn't mean the play isn't theatrical; this tale will leave you spellbound.

Looking Back

Almost forty years after his escape, Billy Hayes has a unique perspective on the events of his youth. He hasn't given up hashish, for sure--he even has a medical marijuana license in California. He reacts with bemusement at how large the effects of his story have been, such as the hippie hangout pudding shop mentioned in his book that subsequently became famous and bought out the hotel next door. 

But there is perhaps one aspect of the journey that has finally come full circle. On Turkish Republic Day on October 29 each year, the Turkish flag is raised over Wall Street. This year, Billy Hayes had the honor of raising the flag. Turkey's most famous escaped convict has become its most famous admirer, and Riding the Midnight Express adds another important dimension to the story. 

It may not be big on spectacle, but don't be afraid of what this one-man play can do. Billy Hayes's Riding the Midnight Express is a story that needs to be heard, and especially to be heard live.

Riding the Midnight Express plays at the Barrow Street Theatre through November 30. For more information, check out their website.

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