Choosing 'to be'

Acting out 'Hamlet' gives prisoners a chance to do the work of repentance

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He killed a cop; I know that. He almost got the death penalty. I know that, too.

So tonight, listening to Kentucky inmate Jerry Guenthner deliver Hamlet's famous soliloquy, it seems to me that "To be, or not to be" is very much the question.

Partly that's because of the life that, 17 years ago, he cut short – and the one, as many years ago, he himself almost lost. But even more, it's because of a choice he made during his time behind bars – the one that helped land him on this stage, playing one of Shakespeare's most difficult roles.

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He and the other inmates in this cast of "Hamlet: Prince of Denmark" have all faced that choice: whether "to be" – to begin a new life in prison, by coming to terms with what they've done and making what amends they can, or "not to be" – never to outgrow the men they were when they committed their crimes; not to do the hard work that reformation takes.

Even if they didn't realize it when they signed on as the cast of this year's Shakespeare Behind Bars production, Mr. Guenthner and the company playing opposite his tortured prince have chosen to do that work.

* * *

A year ago, Monitor photographer Andy Nelson and I spent two weeks at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Ky., getting to know a group of prisoners who were performing Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." The inmates had chosen their parts in the play; many, we were surprised to learn, had picked roles related to the crimes they had committed. This spring we went back for the group's production of "Hamlet" – and to see what had changed.

On the face of it, not much: There isn't great turnover in an acting company whose members are locked up, most of them for upwards of 20 years. Three of last year's 15 cast members have served out their sentences and gone home; two others have been transferred to different facilities. And six new members have joined the group at the urging of veterans.

Also in the past year, the state has adopted a requirement that all its prisoners be in uniform; inmates who last spring chose their own clothes and shoes now wear only khaki and gray. ("Most of our food is also khaki and gray," jokes Hal Cobb, who played Titus last year. "At least they match.")

But as the actors struggle to identify with the characters they're playing in "Hamlet," it becomes clear that the year's real changes have occurred within them: Each has come a little further toward taking responsibility for his crime.

Take Lavassa Anderson. In for life without possibility of parole for 25 years for robbing, sodomizing, and shooting two liquor store clerks (one of whom died), Mr. Anderson found God in prison and committed himself to a fierce prison ministry. Last year, his first in the theater group, he talked angrily about how he'd "had to" kick a gay inmate out of his Christian Fellowship because "he had gone against God and how God wanted him to live."

Over the past year, Anderson says, he's learned from other members of the Shakespeare program – particularly from Mr. Cobb, who is very open about being gay – not to be so quick to pass judgment. "I still don't agree with that lifestyle," he says, "but it was wrong of me to close [that inmate] out, wrong not to find room for him in my heart."

This year, Anderson plays Laertes, a friend of Prince Hamlet who turns on him when the prince accidentally kills Laertes's father. Anderson says he doesn't like the character because he's a coward: Laertes abandons his commitments, betrays his friends, and doesn't know how to fight – qualities Anderson doesn't see in himself, or doesn't want to. But thinking back to his crime, he says: "As far as being stupid and treacherous, I guess I can relate to him in that way."

Fellow actor Leonard Ford has also had a difficult time with his role. Playing Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, who murders the prince's father and marries his mother, Mr. Ford delivers one of the play's famous speeches. "O, my offense is rank," it begins, "it smells to heaven."

Ford, serving a 50-year sentence for sexual abuse of minors, still can't talk directly about his crimes. But he has a lot to say about mercy, repentance, forgiveness.

A devout Christian before his arrest, Ford renounced that tradition, he angrily explained to me last year, because the criminal-justice system had not shown him the mercy he felt he deserved.

This year, when he talks about mercy, Ford is gentler, less defensive. "I sort of lost my religion when I came to prison, so when I think about mercy, I don't think about God. I think about, 'Who do I know is merciful?' " he says. "I don't even think about prayer anymore. I never pray. I think it's useless."

Claudius's signature speech is particularly difficult for him to deliver, Ford says, because in it, his character's inability to pray reveals that he has not yet fully repented of his crime.

Rehearsing the part for the past year, Ford has had a lot of time to think about repentance. It's a difficult issue for him, not only because of its religious connotations, but also because "sometimes you can feel so much shame, so much guilt [about what you've done] that you really don't care what happens to you because you hate yourself too much," he says. "You have to repent in a way that doesn't destroy you."

Sammie Byron has been acting with the Shakespeare Behind Bars program since its founding almost seven years ago. "The dad of the group" – according to its prison sponsor, classification and treatment officer Karen Heath – he is serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend.

Until this year, Mr. Byron says, he always felt he had to play villains, because acting those roles allowed him to exorcise his own capacity for villainy. But tonight Byron is playing Polonius, an overearnest comic character. "I wanted to do something a little lighter, [and] this role is similar to where I'm at," he explains. "Polonius never really has any ill intent, and I've never played a character who didn't possess that quality, because I always kind of viewed myself – or what I had done in the past – as something really bad."

Now "I've pretty much come to terms with that," he says. "Maybe I will play the villain again – but I'm just not as attracted to the villain."

Byron speculates that his fellow actors are still facing down their own demons in the roles they play – particularly in those roles they're struggling to play.

Curt Tofteland, director of the program and of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, agrees. In the prison company, he says, "We challenge each other to say: 'Well, dig deeper. You've resonated that in your intellect, now can you resonate that in your heart? Oh, there it is in your heart, now can you find it in your soul? Oh, OK, now can you find it in the metaphysical?' "

* * *

It's easier "not to be," in prison – easier to imagine that five or 10 or 20 years behind bars aren't your real life, just the time you have to survive till you can return to it. Guys serving only a few years, if they don't get beaten or raped or caught up in a gang, can sometimes lie low and just get by.

But for guys serving 15 or 20 or life, Guenthner says, there's a saying: If you don't do your time, your time will do you. In other words, you have a choice.

In Kentucky, an inmate serving a long sentence usually goes in front of the parole board after eight years; he's almost always denied parole. Traditionally, the board gives him another 12 years – a "12-year flop" – before he faces them again.

It's at this moment, Guenthner says – with as many years to do as he's already done, and then some – that a man can slip into despair.

"It starts to play with your head. You think 'OK, I just got handed a 12-year flop, so the soonest I'll get out I'll be 42 years old – and who's gonna hire a man that old with a felony? And will I fall in love and find somebody who wants to be with me? And will I have children? And if I do, how old will I be when they....'

"All this stuff goes through your head, and it can slow you down," he says. "It can slow you down."

Some people just give up. They turn, or turn back, to drugs; they rack up disciplinary infractions; they attempt suicide. Others find some reason – a prison program, a lover, a child, or some sense that they can make better use of their life than they have yet – to pull through the slump. "I went through that myself," Guenthner says, "and here lately, I've seen Demond go through it too."

Demond Bush has been a member of the Shakespeare program for half of the decade he's spent at Luther Luckett. This year he is playing Horatio, Hamlet's best friend.

Mr. Bush came to prison, he says, as an 18-year-old gangbanger, "with my hood all up over my face. And this walk...." He demonstrates, limping as if he's got a flat on one side.

Ten years gets you thinking, Bush says, about the way time passes. " 'Cause in here, time seems to go slow, but then you wake up five years later and say, 'Man, what happened to half a decade?' "

After a while, Bush says, your whole prison life starts to seem routine: You wake up, get counted, eat, and go to bed at the same times every day. "And it's the same food you eat over and over. It's not like you can get lobster," he pauses, thinks back, "lobster tails and garlic butter."

Bush is serving a 50-year sentence for drug crimes, kidnapping, robbery, and manslaughter; he contends that friends committed the crimes of which he was convicted, but turned him in to save themselves. "For me, time drags," he says, "and I'm here screaming, 'I'm innocent, I'm innocent!' My son just turned 9, May 1st; his mom was two months pregnant when I got locked up. So for me, time drags – but then I look at him, and he growed up so fast, and I wasn't there," he trails off.

* * *

The company does four performances of each of its annual productions. This year, the first two shows were for inmates; tonight's and tomorrow's are for family members and other visitors. Most of those in attendance this evening are actors from the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival or members of the press.

But one of tonight's visitors is unique. Mike Smith is returning to Luther Luckett for the first time since he served out his sentence almost a year ago. Though he's the 14th Shakespeare Behind Bars alumnus to leave prison and stay out, Mr. Smith is the first to come back to see a performance. (Two alumni have returned to prison the other way – because of parole violations.)

While serving eight years for assault and theft, Smith played a major role in the 1999 production of "Othello" and a smaller role last spring in "Titus Andronicus."

Since his release last June, Smith has found a job doing deliveries and soliciting business for a dry cleaning service, and recently bought his own house. He met his girlfriend nine months ago; they're happy together, he says, and she's patient with him when he has trouble keeping up with the demands of free life. "I'm used to life going 30 miles an hour" in prison, he explains, "but out here it's a hundred and ten."

This afternoon he was a little nervous about coming back to prison, even to see a show.

"The last time I saw that place was when my parents picked me up, and I looked over my shoulder, and they drove me home," he said in a phone interview. "Now to think I'm driving back, I'm gonna park, and go to the front door.

"And I know they can't, but you think, 'Can these guys keep me?' "

When Smith arrives for the performance, the inmates are all backstage, and jittery. Tofteland escorts him back and he hugs and high-fives everybody. They joke that he's put on weight.

"Freedom is not agreeing with you, man," Bush teases. "He eating lobster tails and butter," he says, play-punching Smith in the stomach.

"It's a trip, man," Smith says, "seeing all these people, ain't nobody left."

* * *

When the guests are seated and hushed, Tofteland gives a simple introduction and the play begins. Bush, wide-eyed in a cape and tam, convincingly sees a ghost coming through the gloom. Guenthner has no lines when he first comes onstage. Even so he's impossible to ignore: Hamlet's anger seems to boil through his skin.

The show is a success – not flawless, but hard-won. Anderson makes good use of his dislike for Laertes in his portrayal of the character's vengeful side. Ford begins Claudius's repentance speech uncertainly, but by the time he looks skyward and begs, "Help, angels! Make assay," it doesn't even sound as if he's acting.

When Guenthner tackles his "To be, or not to be" speech, I'm paying special attention. Earlier this afternoon, I asked him how he related to those lines, thinking he might talk about his crime, or the sentence he almost received for it.

"I don't," he said. Of the 1,600 lines he's memorized to play the Danish prince, that famous one has given him the most trouble. He can't see himself in it, the 38-year-old murderer says, because "bad as I've messed up – and I would give anything to undo what I done – I never thought about taking my life."

Guenthner was considered a suicide risk when he was first locked up: Guards checked on him regularly, expecting him to make an attempt. That baffled him. "Maybe they thought I should want to die," he says, "but I never did." It must sound strange, he says, but in a way, taking a life shows you how important life is.

When the play is over, and the standing ovation has subsided, the actors join their visitors for a question-and-answer session. The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is also putting on "Hamlet" this year, so many audience members have questions for the inmates with whom they share a role.

There's a lot of joking – even some authentic Shakespearean quips – and then somebody asks Hal Cobb, who played Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, what it's like to play a woman.

Cobb is serving a life sentence for electrocuting his pregnant wife. In 1996, he volunteered to play a woman in Shakespeare Behind Bars's first full-length production, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and got a lot of grief for the decision – not only from inmates outside the program, but from his fellow cast members. "They said, 'It's no big deal for you, you're practically a woman already,' " director Tofteland recalls.

Tofteland was furious; and as a professional Shakespearean actor, an angry Tofteland is a voice to be reckoned with. He sat the company down and told them that Cobb had made a braver choice than any of them, because as a gay man playing a woman in prison, he could be particularly targeted – for harassment and worse – by other inmates.

In the years since that performance, many veteran members of the Shakespeare group have played female roles; now it's accepted by fellow inmates as a matter of course. Playing Gertrude this year, Cobb says, he didn't think about danger; he thought about his mother. Gertrude's character, he explains, made a lot of questionable choices for the sake of appearances. Similarly, Cobb says, his mother has always cared – perhaps too much – about what other people think. "You know, good old Southern dysfunction," he jokes to the crowd.

Cobb has had a difficult time in the Shakespeare group. A fine actor himself, and the only member who came to prison with theater training, he has often incurred the resentment of other company members by ordering them around. He sometimes tries to defuse tensions with stiff jokes – but, Tofteland says, Cobb has never let his guard down.

Until tonight. As he talks about his mother, and how she has never been able to accept that she has a son in prison, he chokes on his words. The other actors look surprised. Tofteland draws the questions to a close, and the guests depart.

Maybe this is it, I think, watching the actors pack into a windowed corridor, to be strip-searched and returned to their cells. They keep waving, mugging, making faces at me and Andy. Every once in a while, someone mouths, "See you next year!"

In the past year, there've been no flash-bang conversions, no sudden contrition among these players. But maybe this slow growth, these lonely revelations – maybe this incremental change is what begins to happen when a man chooses to be.

• E-mail comments to wiltenburgm@csmonitor.com or nelsona@csps.com

One year later

When photographer Andy Nelson and reporter Mary Wiltenburg returned to Luther Luckett Correctional Facility this year, they were looking for changes. Had the passage of another year, and the addition of "Hamlet" to the inmates' growing Shakespeare repertoire, made a difference in how the men saw themselves and the world?

It wasn't an unreasonable quest, even taking into account the static nature of prison life. "Last year, everyone gave us the sense of the transforming experience of these plays," Mary says. But Andy and Mary hadn't seen that in the production of "Titus," though the violent play had forced some actors to confront crimes much like their own.

This year, too, "the reality was that a lot of the guys seemed to be holding the line," Andy says. But "the play gave [them] a chance to have more life. [It's] the high point of the year."

It was also something of a reunion, as Andy and Mary were peppered with questions about their lives. The exchanges drove home the confinement of prison, but revealed growth as well: "What emerged were subtler changes – but ones that mean something to these guys' emotional development," Mary says.

– Amelia Newcomb, editor

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