Inmates tell Shakespeare's tale of star-cross'd lovers [Theater]

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If you’ve never seen a Shakespeare Behind Bars performance, then you have something in common with many of the 84 prison inmates who gathered last week in a makeshift theatre at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Oldham County.

In a pre-performance show of hands, about half indicated they’d never seen a production from Shakespeare Behind Bars, the prison’s all-inmate theatre company. Apparently, there’s been considerable buzz on the yard about this particular play, its cast, its daring nature, and so for the first time in SBB’s 17-year history, every seat in the house was full on opening night. The inmates in attendance wanted to know what you might want to know, what I wanted to know: How is a group of convicted murderers and sex offenders going to perform Romeo and Juliet – in a prison?

The answer, as it turns out, is with heart.

Is that collection of words hard to process? Murderers. Sex offenders. With heart? Perhaps, but that is the puzzle and the promise of Shakespeare Behind Bars: These performers are men who have been defined by their acts of cruelty and yet here, they will stand in front of their peers and lay themselves emotionally bare.

The audience gets quiet as the actors emerge, Capulets in white smocks, Montagues in black, "Two households, both alike in dignity and the show begins."

As a journalist, I’ve visited this prison and spoken with several SBB cast members over the nine months they’ve been rehearsing. Ron Brown, one of the troupe’s veterans, once told me that, “The plays are a vehicle for us to become better people.” The idea is that by studying the characters and going through the ensemble process, the inmates will develop greater empathy and social skills.  

They stage performances in order to give the ensemble members a defined and tangible goal, even though the point of SBB is to change the actors, rather than the audience. Even so, Brown said he takes the craft of acting seriously, “As an actor, I don’t want to just be judged like, ‘Oh, he’s an okay performer for a guy who’s been in prison.’”

Brown, who is serving time for multiple offenses, including assault and kidnapping, can flat-out act. As Friar Lawrence, Brown makes Shakespeare’s words his own and at one point gives the two star-cross’d lovers a look that communicates a churning combination of hope and dread, affection and exasperation. Many of Brown’s fellow actors, particularly the veterans, are similarly capable – funny, versatile, they know what they’re saying. They make me forget for a few minutes that I’m the only person in this crowded room not wearing prison khakis.

Does every actor land every single line? No. Does that ever happen on opening night? Do I care? Also, say what you will about these men and their crimes, there is no denying the courage this performance requires of the actors. A portion of the inmate audience responds to each of Romeo and Juliet’s scenes of love and drama with howls of laughter. Still, in scene after scene, the show’s leads, James Prichard (Romeo) and Derald Weeks (Juliet) fill their faces with wonder and joy, stand before their fellow inmates and say, "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?" et al. Prichard and Weeks, both of whom are serving murder sentences, show extraordinary focus, mutual trust and what I can only describe as professionalism by staying in character and rendering their lines without hurry or hesitation. The two don’t kiss (the text doesn’t actually require it), but they hold each other tenderly and the affection in their looks and words seems unrestrained.  

By the time the Montagues and Capulets shake hands in the final scene, maybe a dozen seats have been vacated (not a bad attrition rate for Shakespeare), and when the cast takes its bow, the audience takes to its feet in a thunderous standing ovation.  The actors smile, looking relieved, satisfied, even grateful.

There is no sense in Shakespeare Behind Bars that this performance (or the public performances which begin tonight at Luther Luckett) will erase these men’s crimes. They know that in legal and social terms, each of them will always be known as a convicted felon. Their hope, perhaps, is that by doing Romeo and Juliet, they’ve taken steps to show the world and themselves that they can be something else, too – a performer, sure, and maybe also a friend, a colleague, a person who can be counted on – a man, by any other name. 

Photos: Courtesy of Louisville Sharp Photography

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About Graham Shelby
A writer, professional storyteller and public radio veteran, Graham's work has been published in various newspapers and magazines and heard on NPR news and on programs like Marketplace and A Prairie Home Companion. He recently performed an original story in New York as a guest of The Moth. Follow Graham on twitter @grahamshelby.
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