Choosing 'to be'
Acting out 'Hamlet' gives prisoners a chance to do the work of repentance
(Page 3 of 4)
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?' "Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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."