Shakespeare Behinds Bars And Meaning To Forgiveness
Marking their seventh year in the program called Shakespeare Behind Bars, convicted felons at Kentucky's Luther Luckett Correctional Complex choose to perform Shakespeare's last and perhaps most original play, The Tempest. Their production not only covers all the important elements of a Shakespearean play, but also astoundingly reaches out to a higher level of meaning and understanding of justice and forgiveness.Shakespeare is considered as one of the greatest artists for his senses of characters and the complexities of human nature. In The Tempest, Shakespeare, with his genius, introduces new characters, new landscape, and new sensibility to the common consciousness.
Each character possesses certain traits and behaviors that through their actions, presents Shakespeare's analysis of human characters and their complexities. In order to portray Shakespeare's character successfully, one needs to be able to truly understand the depth of the character's conflicts, their thoughts, and their personalities. The inmates, through life experience and in relation to the crimes they committed, chose their own characters of the play. Shakespeare's characters, in all audience's amazement, after four hundred years, fit the inmates perfectly.
Curt Tofteland, the volunteer director of the program, even said "Shakespeare would have adored this group." And he was right. The cast of the play, including Hal as Prospero, Sammie as Trinculo, Leonard as Antonio, Big G as Caliban and Red as Miranda are strongly connected to their characters. In many ways, these inmates do not act in their performance, but express passionately their inner voice, which has been hidden or suppressed, through Shakespeare's marvelous text.The cast consists of convicted felons who committed robbery, rape and murder coming to prison with nothing but shame and regrets of their own actions. They certainly lost everything one could ever have such as family, friends, property but most of all, sense of identity.
The Tempest, a play about justice, forgiveness and exploration, applies to every inmate's situation as they themselves were going through the transgression and exploration of their self identities. On the surface, we see these inmates rehearsing every line, every gesture with great care, experimenting different ways to deliver the messages. But on a deeper level, these people are constantly searching within their characters to find the true meaning in their past actions and their present lives.
Just like Caliban was taught how to talk by Prospero and Miranda, the play teaches these inmates how to speak the language within their hearts, something so genuine that their actions could not express. Hal, in his interview, explains his resentment for murdering his wife. A homosexual, Hal was and is still now struggling with his gender and conception of self identity. Through the character Prospero, Hal finds himself thinking about his own actions, his vulnerability, and finding his own voice.
Or in the case of Red who, similar to Miranda, first saw his father for the first time when he was fifteen. Red, with his struggled childhood and bisexuality, asks the question of Miranda and perhaps his own: "are you my father?" The Tempest's theme of exploration cannot be expressed any deeper than Red's shock in the recognition for his own quest of identity that has been denied by his parents.Although we don't see the whole performance of The Tempest, through the group's discussions and rehearsals, we can clearly see the deep connection each inmate shares for their characters. These men, astoundingly, can see Shakespeare and his vision through their own struggles just as Shakespeare can see them through their difficulties. The connection between the actors and the play is so unified that Shakespeare's themes can simply come directly across to the audience.
Throughout the process of rehearsing and exploring the characters, the inmates experience powerful epiphanies about themselves. These discoveries allow them to perceive the acknowledgement of accepting themselves and their past actions. Such acknowledgement is the initial step that will lead them through the process of forgiveness, the main theme of The Tempest.
Big G, who casts himself as Caliban, gains such acknowledgement. In the rehearsal, Curt Tofteland describes Caliban as an angry character. Big G's definition of Caliban is deeper than that. Big G can see through the monstrosity of Caliban and he discovers Caliban's fragile heart and his vulnerability. Just like Caliban, Big G was heavily under the influence of others.
He was taught to make bad choices, such as selling drugs, at a young age without really understanding the consequences. Big G thinks of himself, and many other prisoners, as a savage who is lack of thought, lack of understanding, and especially, lack the ability to manage pains. Big G realizes that monstrosity doesn't come from look nor manner but from the one's spirit and mind. Big G also realizes that he's himself is not a monster but a savage who simply didn't know what he was doing. His realization certainly gives him some faith in the goodness of mankind and especially the goodness within himself.
Big's realization also expresses the difficulty of distinguished men and monsters, as well as the meaning of justice - the two main themes of the play. How should we treat these men, who although known as convicted felons, but possess such resentment and kindness? How do we distinguish man from monster, human flaws from crimes?
Prospero, in the beginning part of the play, revealed himself as the real monster of the play who is not only excessively controlling but also full of revengeful thought. But with the guidance of Ariel, he is able to transform himself and achieve happiness through forgiveness. Will these felons have such a chance for transformation?Shakespeare Behind Bar brings together many of Shakespeare's themes and traits that are historical, such as the all-male performance.
Throughout the rehearsal and the performance, we can clearly see the striking parallel between the text and the inmates' lives. The Tempest's island becomes Luther Luckett as both are isolated from the outside world and are filled with conflicting emotions such as fear, anger and revenge. The convicted felons, the most restricted people in society, find the freedom to express themselves, their true characters without any influences, in the performance.
These people, with all their struggles and their conflicting emotions, search for freedom and self-knowledge to achieve forgiveness. These noble men, with their dedication, force us to consider the states of our own existence and to reconcile how we perceive and embrace men and monster, vice and virtue, felony and felicity, punishment and pardon.Through the performance of these remarkably unique actors, we are able to see the human psyche unfold in all its complexities as these men reveal their own kindness, humanity and most of all, their faith. Shakespeare Behind Bar is not only successful in delivering and deepening Shakespeare's themes but also instilling in each of us the hope and faith in the goodness of mankind.
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