For some reason I’ve always been intrigued by prisons. “The Shawshank Redemption” is my favorite movie. Consequently, we toured the prison where it was filmed in Mansfield.
For two years I lived in an apartment in downtown Philadelphia where the back window looked out upon a prison from the 1800s. It had been closed down for years. When Joe and I went to Philly for our 20th anniversary on a nostalgic tour of our past, the prison was open for tours, much to my delight and Joe’s chagrin. I had to see it.
Little did I know as I was peering at every nook and cranny that Joe had planned a surprise party (to which I almost made us late). Years later we visited San Francisco. Tops on my list was seeing Alcatraz.
Over and over I wondered as we saw the cells, learned about the practices, heard stories of prison breaks: How could there be that many “bad” people? The thing is, what we were seeing were the shells, the places. The stories we were hearing were the sensational, the newsworthy. What we weren’t seeing was the humanity.
I’ve seen that humanity now thanks to my good friend, Phyllis Gorfain, who has spearheaded a Shakespeare in Prison program, called Oberlin Drama at Grafton. Oh sure, there are undoubtedly lots of shady characters, many people who have destroyed lives and may not ever be rehabilitated, who are locked away from society. And certainly even some of the men in Phyllis’ program committed acts of violence in the past.
But they, and undoubtedly others, are not beyond redemption. The men I’ve met in this program are working very hard to redeem themselves. They all strive for better futures. They should not be thrown away as useless because I’ve seen in these men a great pride, a real honesty, a determination to be better people and a great regret for what happened in the past.
Recently they chose to perform “Othello.” The actors themselves chose it even though it was not on the original list of possibilities that Phyllis presented. They chose it because it dealt with difficult themes of domestic violence, sexism, racism, jealousy, and revenge. They chose it because of the lives they had led and the opportunity to face those issues head-on.
After the moving performance, one man spoke up during the talk-back, saying his crime involved jealousy, alcohol, and drugs, so he had chosen his particular role to be able to internalize the effects those elements had on those he had victimized.
Another looked the audience in the eyes and admitted that the darkness of his crime loomed over him every day and that sometimes, even years later, he still sheds tears of regret. He went on to say it isn’t true that we can’t change and that hopefully through ODAG those visiting could see how he and his fellow performers had changed.
After the three-day run was completed, I was invited to the follow up “debriefing.” The exhilaration of both a job well done through the magic of theater and the memory of accolades from the audience absolutely filled the room. One actor said he was still on a buzz from the performances and didn’t know when he would come down! Another told of sitting around a day or so after the performance when a huge shadow loomed over him. He was a big, burly fellow, the type who seemed to be looking for trouble. Instead, he leaned over, patted the actor on the shoulder and said, “Good job with the play!”
So, I’ve seen the humanity. I think about these men even when I’m not there. I think about the difference that Phyllis, her college student helpers, Shakespeare, and this opportunity to form a theater family has made for them. I’m hopeful that everyone who went to see this amazing production felt it too.
I don’t know what the future will hold for these men. Some will go home. Perhaps some will not. I do know for sure that there is a lot more to prison than the walls, the rules, the stories of escape. There is, indeed, humanity.
Thank you Phyllis and thank you ODAG for helping me to see that.
Visit the ODAG website at www.graftondrama.com.
Pat Gorske Price graduated from Oberlin High School and taught English and drama there for 12 years. In retirement she continues to enjoy writing and theater. Comments can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.