Acting with conviction
(Page 2 of 6)
It's a choice that mirrors the current debate about the purpose of modern prisons.Skip to next paragraph
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The first "penitentiaries" in the United States were founded on the principle that enough hard labor and solitary confinement would reform convicts. But by the late 19th century, advocates argued for vocational training and reintegration into society. In a 1970 Louis Harris poll, 70 percent of Americans supported those goals. By 1982, 90 percent of state departments of correction offered federally subsidized two- or four-year college degrees.
But in the early 1990s, an upsurge in violent crime and a rash of tough new federal legislation swelled the prison population. In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which eliminated funds for inmate college programs. Today, 58 percent of Americans believe prisons - a $40 billion-a-year industry - are primarily for punishment.
Larry Chandler, the warden at Luther Luckett, is not among them. His prison has a long list of education, treatment, and recreation programs, and Chandler says his mission is to assist anybody who wants to learn. "I don't care if you murdered, raped - life goes on," he says. "The day they come in, we ought to start preparing 'em for the day they leave."
Onstage, Tamora, a conquered queen, begs Titus to spare the life of her eldest son. When he ignores her, she swears vengeance. Titus gives Tamora and her fellow prisoners to the new emperor, who frees them as a gesture of goodwill. Once unshackled, the shuffling actors straighten and file proudly off stage.
Act II: dress rehearsal
The only practice space available the first day of dress rehearsals is in the electronics shop, where the actors have cleared a stage area. Curt hands out tunics and wooden swords. It's the first time with these forbidden props, and new actor Randy True - playing Lavinia, Titus's daughter - ricochets among the guys, showing off his sackcloth skirt and soon-to-be-severed hand.
As the scene begins, Titus promises his daughter in marriage to Saturninus. But she is engaged to the emperor's brother, who steals her away. When Titus's family berates him for his action, Titus flies into a rage and kills his son, played by Michael Rogers.
Michael is hunched in a corner of the shop, scrutinizing the script. As his turn approaches, he moves stiffly forward. Ordinarily, Michael has a heavy stutter - but once onstage, he defies Titus quietly, but clearly: "My lord, you pass not here." As his father stabs him, he whispers to his brother, "Help, Lucius, help!"
"Good, Michael!" Curt shouts, and Michael retreats, blushing. Sentenced to seven years for sexually abusing a 7-year-old, he will be released this summer, having served about half that time.
"Titus" is the most obscure Shakespearean tragedy, an unlikely play for any company to produce. Curt says he picked it partly because of what it says about vengeance. "Everyone's been wronged by somebody else, and a lot of them take it out on each other in pretty bloody ways," he says. "But their revenge begets revenge begets revenge, and in the end there are no heroes left. It consumes everybody. I think that's important for these guys - really for all of us - to understand."
Onstage, the emperor turns his affections to Tamora, who agrees to marry him. She persuades him to feign friendship with Titus until she can devise a way to torture him. The two men exit, leaving Aaron, Tamora's servant and paramour, alone.
Aaron is a bad guy: Everything he does is a means to a criminal end. He's played by Sammie Byron, who once set a US weightlifting record when, at 178 lbs., he hoisted 760 lbs. in a single dead lift. Today, he's most impressive for his oratory.
As he begins a speech, Curt interrupts. "He's telling the group: I'm an educated man," he reminds Sammie. "In Shakespeare's day, it would have had a stronger impact amongst all these white folks to see this Moor speak in that way. But he's still saying: 'I am not a slave!' "