I was raised in Brooklyn and grew up with a good mother and a good father. I grew up with five brothers, and I’m the youngest. I went to Concord Baptist church when I was young. Within my surroundings, you had the Nation of Islam, you had the Black Panther Party, you had the hippies of the Sixties. But then you had the Vietnam era. I had a father that was in the Second World War. My father’s name was Joseph. And we used to call him GI Joe because he was real strict. Your bed had to be made, on a Sunday your clothes had to be ironed for the whole week, everything had to be put in the proper setting in your room. I learned to be disciplined from my father. At eight years old, I was studying jujitsu. At a young age I knew how to travel, I knew how to secure my family, I knew how to take care of my mother and my other brother. My father sent me to Catholic school. I went to St. Agnes here in New York. And when I came home, around 1973, I was thirteen. At thirteen I knew how to roll the streets, I knew who to watch for and who not to watch for. At that time I learned about the street life. I was taught to sell. I was learning things about hustling in the streets of New York.
I’m a much greater man now than I used to be, because I was taught the right way at the wrong time. Now I thank my higher power, my Lord Jesus Christ my savior, for saving me. Because if I would’ve stayed on the same track as I used to be, instead of convicted by twelve with a jury, I’d be carried by six. I stopped everything that I used to do. Now I work with people my age. I work with the youth. Now, I can sit here with a group of people and talk about what I used to be, the old me to the new me. I have accomplished a lot. I have patience, I have self-control, and God has gifted me. When they came to me about the Public Theater and said you have an opportunity—now that’s like a gift from God, I take advantage. If it’s time for the play or rehearsal, I’m here and I take this real serious.
I also do artwork. I do handkerchiefs. I get a pattern and I copy it. And then I create, and I use my own airbrush. Years ago I had took up interior decorating. And what really got me on more of it, is in the penitentiary there was an old timer and he showed me how to do it, and it just became a hobby.
We’re all human beings, you know. I’m dark, you’re light, but under the skin we’re just alike. If I pinch you with a needle and I pinch me with a needle, the same thing is going to come out. So what’s the difference? I’m trying to get connected with the church I’m in now, to get into the prison network to go back to prison and spread the word. I was once there and now I’m here. I was within the stone walls and steel bars, but now I’m here. Because once you know yourself, you’re free. When you don’t know yourself, you’re still incarcerated. And I told people when I came home, I left the prison with the prison: I’m Free! No more shackles, no more bonds. I’m not there anymore. I’m free. So I tell people, leave the penitentiary, and leave the prison where the prison is. You’re free now. Free yourself. The more you love yourself, you’ll be happy with yourself. To change yourself is not changing your outer appearance. You could throw make-up on yourself, but the inside will remain the same. Once you change the inside you say, “Wow!” You know how many doors opened for me? It’s amazing! And I keep moving forward.
Every day is a new me. I wake up in the morning, I throw my jazz on, I do my little workout, I have my mirror up there…this is me; this is Donald Gray. So I work with people and I got a good part time job. I got a roof over my head, I got the keys, I got the lady of my life, and I got a good family. I’m at peace with myself, I’m happy with myself, I love myself more and more each day. I don’t dwell on yesterday. I remember yesterday, I don’t forget today, and I look forward to tomorrow.