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Prison Theater Prepares Inmates for Life on Outside

  • Graham Shelby

Shakespeare Behind Bars' inmate ensemble cast performs "Macbeth" in 2009.

Shakespeare Behind Bars' inmate ensemble cast performs "Macbeth" in 2009.

Actors perform the classics in Shakespeare Behind Bars

The Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, just outside Louisville, Kentucky, is home to more than 1,000 felons and one unusual theater company.

It’s an inmate ensemble called Shakespeare Behind Bars. For 16 years, the group has been staging plays like "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and "Julius Casear."

They perform both for inmates and the public. Now, they’re rehearsing their next production: "Romeo and Juliet." And if you’re going to stage "Romeo and Juliet" in a prison, your first challenge is casting.

"Here, as far as personality traits, the feminine is not really embraced," says Hal Cobb, a founding member of Shakespeare Behind Bars, who is serving a life sentence for murder. He’s also openly gay. "Many people try to project an ultra macho image just to survive in this place, and to let down that wall can leave somebody feeling pretty vulnerable."

Enter inmate number 166200, who plays Romeo:

"She speaks.
"O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven"

That's James Prichard, who asked to play Romeo because he identifies with the character. “I’ve been in love, I’ve lost love. I’ve taken a life. There’s a lot of qualities that Romeo goes through during the play that I’ve been through in real life.” Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, near Louisville, Kentucky, is home to the inmate acting program, Shakespeare Behind Bars.

Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, near Louisville, Kentucky, is home to the inmate acting program, Shakespeare Behind Bars.

And what about Juliet, the most iconic female role in all of literature? Who would play her?

"I got Aryan Brotherhood tattooed on my stomach. I got SWP with some lightning bolts on my chest. It’s Supreme White Power. You get them for committing violent acts," says Derald Weeks, who asked to play Juliet.

Weeks, who's also serving a life sentence for murder, says he joined white racist groups when he was young partly because he was angry and wanted to intimidate people.

“A few years ago, it came into my head, 'What does it matter what any of these people think about me when I can’t stand to look at myself?” he says.

That realization led Weeks to Shakespeare Behind Bars. He was drawn to the character of Juliet because he didn’t identify with her.

"I’ve been in prison since I was a kid," Weeks says. "So there’s a lot of feelings expressed in that play that I never felt. So this is my opportunity to try to get that and see what happens with that feeling." Ron Brown, who plays Friar Lawrence in the current production of "Romeo and Juliet," played the title role in "Macbeth" in 2009.

Ron Brown, who plays Friar Lawrence in the current production of "Romeo and Juliet," played the title role in "Macbeth" in 2009.

Ron Brown, another inmate, plays Juliet’s confidant, Friar Lawrence. "I look at Derald. I've watched him mentally and physically commit to a role I would never dream he would have picked and I'm really proud of him."

Matt Wallace, Shakespeare Behind Bars’ artistic director, is a theater professional, not an inmate. He chooses and directs the plays. While most theater companies try to create an experience for the audience, Shakespeare Behind Bars creates an experience for the actors.

That's especially important since about 95 percent of inmates in state prisons will one day go free, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

"By using the text, by putting themselves in the shoes of these characters, they’re becoming more empathetic, more responsible, better human beings and ultimately, better neighbors," Wallace says.

So, not only are members of Shakespeare Behind Bars rehearsing for their next performance, they’re also preparing for the performance of their lives when they're no longer behind bars.

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