Many of you have probably heard about the Luther Luckett Correctional Facility’s program Shakespeare Behind Bars from the 2005 documentary. Now in its 18th year, the program still makes headlines for its heartfelt, simply staged performances and intelligent, honest discourse from the program’s participants.
The premise of the program is that for a year, inmates choose to participate in the program – which offers no “good time” exchange or credit – and read, discuss, and perform a Shakespeare play. The documentary shows the small group tackling The Tempest – which may seem like a very simple comedy, but in the hands of these men it takes on a whole new meaning as they explore familial relationships, addictions, revenge, and other tough, human stories. They can choose the characters they’d like to play, and for many they choose the character that will challenge them most.
This year’s group performed Romeo and Juliet, and the actors discovered hard facts about themselves that they hadn’t expected. Derald Weeks, as Juliet, took on the role of the victim, and though she takes charge at many points, Weeks had to experience the powerlessness of his character. Meanwhile, David Harding, playing Escalus, hadn’t realized how affecting the text would be until he had to memorize Romeo’s rant against banishment:
At first, Harding told the audience during the question-and-answer session after the play, he thought the exercise would be easy, that he would wow everyone with his theatrical prowess.
But then, at night in his bunk, he began thinking about what it was to be banished and how he is separated from his wife and children.
“Everything I hold dear is on the other side of that wall,” Harding said. “I was at that time crushed under a weight that I didn’t know was there in the text.”
“Shakespeare is not about acting,” he went on to say. “It’s about finding the truth in the words.”
While we can’t all spend entire years, or even months on one play in our classrooms, it’s important to remember that the human element of the stories reaches through the words to share an experience. The words are not a hindrance to study, but rather a jumping-off point into discussions of being alive.