Choosing 'to be'
Acting out 'Hamlet' gives prisoners a chance to do the work of repentance
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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