Secret Beauty - Shakespeare Behind Bars
with guest blogger/co-author Rose Kolonauski
We do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
~ Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I
On Tuesday, June 14, Rose and Melanie attended a Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) performance of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Luther Luckett state prison in LaGrange, Kentucky. SBB was founded by Curt Tofteland at Luther Luckett 16 years ago. This was the second SBB performance we have attended.
This year’s performance was held in the prison chapel. Both of us felt the stark contrast, going from gray concrete and razor wire into the serenity of the chapel, with its rough-beamed cathedral ceiling and quietly rotating fans. Colorful hand-painted backdrops, one of an idyllic mountain scene in the Italian countryside and the other a night scene amid the canals and bridges of Venice, defined the contours of a makeshift stage. Two men, wearing their prison khakis, played an acoustic guitar rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” Other men wore simple costumes made of tapestry print fabrics in muted shades of maroon, gold and dusty blue. But the khaki collars and pants legs of their prison uniforms that showed under their costumes were a continual reminder of where we were.
We found seats among the audience of over 50 people, and Matt Wallace, SBB’s Artistic Director, introduced the play. For the next two hours, the actors drew all of us into Shakespeare’s world and theirs.
“Mercy” and experiences of being “the other” are two central themes in The Merchant of Venice.
Big G, who played Lancelot Gobbo, has been in SBB for 14 years. In reflecting on the theme of “the other” in Merchant, Big G said, “I believe we have all thought of someone else as ‘the other,’ and at some point we have all been treated as ‘the other,’ too. Try to remember the pain you felt when someone treated you like the other. It hurt like hell didn’t it? So why in the world do we continue to treat others like the other? Raising questions like this is what the process is all about in SBB. We do not pretend to have all the answers, but exploring and living in the question is what we do.”(1)
This kind of personal exploration is at the heart of SBB and part of its power. The results speak for themselves. The recidivism rate of SBB alumni is 7.5%, contrasted with Kentucky’s average recidivism rate of 29.5% and the national average of 67%. These results emerge from SBB’s values of education, skill-development, self-understanding, personal responsibility, and relationship-building so that each participant, upon his release from prison, is prepared to return to society as a contributing member.
Erroll, who plays the Duke of Venice, is one of the newest members of the SBB company, yet he has already gained tremendous insight through his character. “My favorite line is ‘How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?’” (Act IV, Scene I) Erroll observed. “I was asked once, when was the last time you were merciful to someone? I thought about it for a long time, and had to drift back to my childhood. I should have been able to think of numerous accounts where I felt compassion in my heart, but mercy has never been a predominate trait in my life. That single line challenged my overall outlook on how I am doing my time and showed me my need to adopt a more positive one.”(1)
During a talk-back session after the performance, audience members had the chance to ask questions and hear directly from the men about the impact of SBB on their lives.
Floyd has played a variety of roles in his years with SBB, but he was especially drawn to the role of Shylock in this year’s production. During the talk-back, he explained, “I’ve suffered nothing but abuse my whole life – both taking it and giving it. Shylock wanted mercy, but wouldn’t give it. It has been the same with me. I also grew up being ‘different,’ so I have compassion for Shylock. He isn’t just here,” Floyd said, pointing to his head, “but he’s here.” Floyd rested his hand over his heart.
During Act III, Scene I, in one especially memorable soliloquy, where Floyd expresses both his own and Shylock’s raw emotion over being abused and hated merely for being ‘different,’ everyone in the audience seemed to be holding their breath.
Erroll observed, “Anyone can recite Shakespeare lines, but connecting and telling your truth through the characters is a blessing in itself.”(1)
Ron, a founding member of SBB who has played numerous characters over the past 16 years, talked about another way SBB has impacted his life. “The most important relationship that I have developed is the one with myself . . . I have learned that I am not Macbeth, Valentine, Romeo, Emilia, Shylock, Vincentio, Cassius, or any other character that I have tried to embody on stage. I am also not a killer because I have killed, a kidnapper because I have kidnapped, or a thief because I have stolen. SBB has taught me that failure is an event, not a person.”(1)
“I don’t ask nor do I care what crime they’ve committed to get here,” SBB Director Matt Wallace explained. “I’m most concerned with where they are now and where they are going – emotionally, spiritually, as a fellow man.” He continues, “Working with SBB, I’ve come to the realization that . . . we all have the capacity to help or harm in this world. It’s not just ‘bad guys’ or ‘good guys.’”(1)
Hal, another founding member of SBB, who played the Prince of Arragon in Merchant, put it this way, “As convicted felons, we learn that to be human is very complex and complicated. No one is purely good or completely evil. The best people have flaws and failings. Those labeled the worst can find goodness and redemption.”(1)
Hal’s observations reflect the vision of SBB, which was founded on the beliefs that all human beings are inherently good, and that although convicted criminals have committed heinous crimes against other human beings, this inherent goodness still lives deep within them and must be called forth.“If you can really put yourself into another’s place then it makes it incredibly difficult to treat them like ‘the other’,” Big G observed. “If you can really put yourself into another’s place it makes it incredibly easy to see their secret beauty. This secret beauty exists in all of us.”(1)
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~ Rose Kolonauski teaches English in Lancaster and Dauphin County schools, and works as a parent educator with Samara Center for Family and Individual Growth. Her passion for Shakespeare originated with her studies at Penn State-Harrisburg and several pilgrimages to the American Shakespeare Center/Blackfriars Theatre where she and fellow students were immersed in Shakespearean performances and workshops. Her dream is to incorporate Shakespeare into her classroom teaching and her work with Samara.
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(1) from written reflections about SBB and The Merchant of Venice by each of the actors in the Luther Luckett publication “The Observer” – Special SBB Edition – June, 2011