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Choosing 'to be'

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

By Mary Wiltenburg / July 23, 2002

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

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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.

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.