By Larry Widen Special to OnMilwaukee Published Jan 17, 2024 at 5:01 PM

On Jan. 13, 1968, Johnny Cash recorded a live album at California’s Folsom State Prison. Cash had seen the inside of jail cell on occasion but never did hard time. Still, he had empathy for inmates at the penitentiary, and his 1955 hit, “Folsom Prison Blues,” said it all. 

“When I was just a baby, my mama told me, ‘son’
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry”

Before his performance, Cash bantered with the audience of convicts, saying, “This show is being recorded for a Columbia Records album, so you can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘sh*t’ or anything like that.” 

The historic Folsom prison evening in 1968 will be faithfully recreated in an interactive theater setting at The Pabst Theater on Friday, Jan. 19. The cast of 16 musicians and actors engage with guests, making them active participants in the play. 

“The audience members get to play the inmates,” said Jay Ernest, who plays Johnny Cash. “Prison guards will be stationed throughout the theater.”

Upon arrival, guests will get in the thick of things by having their picture taken in the jail cell. They’re also encouraged to dress the way prisoners or lawbreakers might have done 50 years ago. 

Ernest and his business partner Tom Pickard came up with the idea for an original Johnny Cash show while sidelined during the COVID lockdowns.

“Rather just stage a musical tribute, we’re presenting behind-the-scenes action and some plot twists to make the even more compelling," Ernest said.

Ernest said the guards are played by members of improv comedy groups, and they can ad-lib, conduct a roll call with the "inmates" and have an opportunity to roast the audience.

“We’ve performed the show 25 times, so we’re well-rehearsed and audience-tested," he said. "We cannot wait to perform in Milwaukee."

For more information on the show and to purchase tickets, click here