Acting with conviction

This spring, photographer Andy Nelson and writer Mary Wiltenburg traveled to a Kentucky prison, where inmates were putting the final touches on their production of a long-anticipated play. For the next two weeks, they were audience to an unusual drama, both offstage and on.

Titus Andronicus, an early Shakespearean play about rape, murder, and revenge, isn't popular with critics; the poet T.S. Eliot called it "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written." But performed by rapists, murderers, and other offenders at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, the play takes on a new life ... and, as it does, so do its actors.

Act 1: behind bars

Jerry Guenthner, "G" to his friends, charges onstage, dressed in a burlap tunic. In front of a painted backdrop, he launches into the opening lines of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus": "Noble patricians, patrons of my right, defend the justice of my cause with arms."

Except for a high fence, just visible through a window off stage right, this could be a community-theater production. Except for the tag on his pants - "J. Guenthner #096355" - G could be a free man.

He and the 22 other players and crew members for this production are inmates at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Ky. It's a medium-security prison, laid out in white cinder block and wide lawns - like a community college, but ringed with watchtowers and razor wire. Built to house 485 inmates, it is home to 975 men, most convicted of murder, rape, armed robbery, or drug charges. In a place like this, spoken by a man with a life sentence for killing a police officer, the words "right," "justice," and "arms" sound different than they would on a high school or professional stage.

No ticket window or ushers have greeted guests arriving for tonight's performance. Instead, they have cleared a vehicle checkpoint, two metal detectors, and four locking doors. Now they're packed into rows of stacking chairs in the visiting room.

Sitting up front, G's family watches intently. A few rows back, Demetrius Burris's mother cranes to see her son, playing a prisoner of war. When Leonard Ford begins his lines as a Roman tribune, his father straightens.

In a back corner, near the guard station, stands Curt Tofteland, director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, the program responsible for this production. He's also starting a new season in his regular job as director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

Shakespeare Behind Bars grew out of an effort to bring inmates and middle-school students together to discuss literature. Curt contacted that program's director to suggest a performance component. Six years and four wardens later, the discussions have lapsed - but the performances endure.

Not that it's been easy: Previous wardens were not all supportive of Curt's efforts, and the current warden admits his program probably wouldn't be around if it cost anything. Curt raises money to pay for costumes, and volunteers his time. He says he does it because acting can transform lives - particularly those of prisoners.

"I let the guys choose their roles," he says, "and you'd be surprised how many choose to act out the very kinds of things they're in here for." The inmates have told him those roles allow them to grapple with emotions they wouldn't otherwise be able to confront safely. "I tell them, 'You choose your role, but your role also chooses you' - and I believe that happens for a reason."

Onstage, G is joined by actors playing Titus's relatives and prisoners of war. They debate how to choose Rome's next emperor, their loyalties split between a budding democracy and a tradition of genealogical succession. Titus, a venerable soldier, ultimately confers the title on Saturninus, G's character and the elder but less compassionate son of the late emperor.

The attempt at an orderly transition will quickly devolve into a cycle of murder and recrimination. Father will turn against son, general against emperor, in a story that leaves everyone opting for vengeance over mercy.

It's a choice that mirrors the current debate about the purpose of modern prisons.

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!' "

Sammie begins the speech again. "Yes!" Curt shouts, when he hits his stride. "Yes!"

To look at him now, you'd never guess that in elementary school, Sammie was the target of bullies. Initially, fellow African-American children picked on the part-Mexican boy for his lighter skin tone. Then two high-schoolers started beating him up and forcing him to perform sexual acts on them.

Sammie idolized his father in those days. Both he and Sammie's mother were alcoholics, who beat him "usually every day." Still, when the sexual abuse started, Sammie went to tell his father. His shirt was ripped, and when his father saw the tear, "he just started calling me stuff like 'punk,' saying, 'You won't take up for yourself.' So I never did tell him."

When he was 9, his family moved, and Sammie thought he'd escaped. Then his 18-year-old neighbor Paul began molesting him. "And my dad would always say, 'Why don't you be more like Paul?' "

Onstage, Sammie, as Aaron, finds Tamora's two remaining sons arguing about which of them might woo Lavinia away from her new husband. He suggests instead that they join forces and rape her.

After rehearsal, the actors file out of the shop through a metal detector. It blares when somebody forgets to empty his pockets of a pair of chocolate eggs, wrapped in pink and gold foil.

Once outside, Sammie heads toward the rec field. Claudman Anderson, who plays one of the conspiring sons, accompanies him partway. Claudman just graduated from divinity school and will be released next year, after serving 23 years.

He says he got stuck with his role; he didn't want to play a rapist. "I have a sexual-abuse charge. I been through all the therapy, and I've grown. So at first I said, 'Naw, I can't do this.' " His wife, though, gave him her blessing. "She said, 'It's just a play. The person you're portraying is not you, so do your best.' When she gave me that approval, I said, 'Yeah, I'm ready to go.' "

When he reaches the field, Sammie walks out to the middle, its highest point. Outside the fence, long fields roll off into broad sky. This, he says, is his favorite spot in the place. "This is so pretty. If I walk up here, and I look down, I don't see any sign of prison. That's gotta be the coolest thing."

Randy shows up late the next morning for another day as Lavinia. He swaggers in wearing sandals and socks, a day-glo vest, and sunglasses riding the brim of his weathered cap. Mike Smith, who plays Lavinia's husband, rolls his eyes. "She ain't pretty," he concedes, "but she's all I got."

As they were in Shakespeare's day, all the female roles are played by men. At first, none of the guys would play a woman; finally, Hal Cobb volunteered. Hal - Titus this year - is gay, and some guys taunted him. "They'd say, 'It's easy for you, you're like a woman already.' " Curt got angry. "I told them, 'He's risking as much as any of you to play his part, and he's probably risking even more out on the yard.' " After a successful first year, other men started volunteering.

Leonard, who's serving 50 years for sex crimes, is one of those. This year, he's double-cast with Demond Bush; the two play Tamora and Titus's brother on alternate nights. Leonard says he wants to play Tamora "to confront those fears of mine about playing a woman in a place where you have to try to be as macho as you can. And in a way, to say: 'I'm going to do this because I'm going to learn something about myself by doing so.' "

Today, he sashays on stage, his character intent on a tryst with Aaron. Aaron instead appeases Tamora with his wicked plot: Her sons will capture Bassianus and Lavinia, murder him, and rape her.

Aaron leaves as the young couple appears; Tamora's sons soon arrive. They stab Bassianus, then start to taunt Lavinia, who begs their mother for mercy. Tamora offers none, and her sons drag Lavinia to a hollow, offstage, where they rape her and cut off her hands and tongue.

Like many abused children, Sammie did not escape the cycle of physical, emotional, and sexual violence in his adult life. He went to prison twice for assault, and twice got out on good behavior. Then he married and helped found a wrestling gym.

"But still," he says, "I had all these problems." He began having affairs with many women - particularly one named Carol, who "was very abusive."

They broke up once, but five years later resumed the affair. Sammie was also sleeping with his supervisor, and Carol threatened to expose him. "And I'm like, 'I'm going to lose everything I got.' So in a fit of rage, I ended up strangling [Carol]."

Onstage, Saturninus finds his brother murdered, and condemns two of Titus's sons to death for the crime. Titus begs for mercy, but receiving none, begins to lose his mind. When Marcus brings the bloody Lavinia to him, Titus stops raving, and weeps.

Aaron, anxious for more mischief, tells Titus a lie: If he will chop off his hand, and entrust it to Aaron to deliver, the emperor will spare his sons. Titus doesn't hesitate, and Aaron cuts off the hand.

Hal curls up at the foot of a drill press, clutching his severed wrist. "Watch your hands and fingers," warns a safety poster taped overhead.

Later, Hal proudly shares a photo that's come in the mail: his daughter's high school graduation picture. He's not allowed to contact her - when she was a toddler he electrocuted her pregnant mother - but his parents send him pictures. In the photo, a young woman in a dress suit sits solemnly, looking twice her age. She has Hal's eyes. "This is my Lavinia," he says.

That afternoon, in his office, Warden Chandler confides that "record-wise, Curt's got a couple of the worst guys. It still amazes me. You would run, if you seen 'em in their day." Of all the inmates involved in Shakespeare when Chandler first arrived, he trusted Sammie least. "He was a scary guy in those days. It's different now. That light bulb went off for him."

Chandler has spent his career at five Kentucky prisons, and has mixed feelings about his plans to leave Luther Luckett next year to start up a sixth. It will be a $77 million facility in the heart of Appalachia. "Appalachia's new industry is prisons, for sure. We build 'em and we never close 'em." He pauses, studying an old-fashioned ball and chain slumped decoratively by his door. "I'll always have a job, I know that," he says.

Act IV: the right role

Onstage in rehearsal, Lavinia frantically pages through Ovid's "Metamorphoses" with the stumps of her wrists. Coming upon the story of the rape of Philomel, she gestures wildly to her father and uncle, to underscore the similarity between it and the crime committed against her. For many of the actors, too, performing Shakespeare has meant finding their lives paralleled in literature.

The first such moment for Sammie was when he played Proteus, who attempts a rape at the end of "Two Gentlemen of Verona." That role brought back details of Sammie's crime he'd never understood.

"With Carol," he explains, "it was a pattern: We would argue, then we'd have sex, and everything was better. But [just before I killed her] what really happened was: We argued, and we did not have sex. I raped her. Then I strangled her later. Proteus reminded me of all that. And playing the role helped me move past it somewhat."

Two years later, Sammie chose the title role in "Othello." In the final scene, Othello suffocates his wife. Sammie wanted the part, he explains, to make sure that when his character was tempted by violence, Sammie himself wouldn't be. "In prison, [it's like the alcoholic who says] 'I've been in for five years, and I haven't drank for five years.' It's easy, because you don't have access to it. Playing Othello and Proteus, that gave me access to it instantly. I wanted to challenge myself, to make sure how would I respond."

Memories of the crime hit him in rehearsal for "Othello" one day. Sammie started to sob. "It really broke me down," he remembers, crying even now. "And what was really great was having all my partners there to support me. It's like getting down to the truth, and delivering it.

"And then, about five minutes after I bawled my head off, Curt said 'Okay, let's do it again.' "

Onstage, a nurse brings a baby to Aaron in the woods: his son born to Tamora. If the emperor hears of his wife's infidelity, he will have the baby killed. In his only tender moment, Aaron promises: "This before all the world do I prefer, This maugre all the world will I keep safe."

Last year, Sammie got a letter whose return address bore the last name of a woman he'd slept with once. It began, "Hi, my name is Desiree, and I am your daughter. I'm 18 years old, and if you'd like to get to know me, please write me back."

When he read that, Sammie remembers, "I have never been happier in all my life." They began corresponding, and later in the year they met. "We fell instantly in love, me and Desi. We write all the time, and talk. [In] her very first letter back to me, she said, 'I've already forgiven you for not being there for me.' I needed to hear that."

After rehearsal, Sammie and Michael head out to the rec field for some last-minute coaching. Michael plays an old Roman lord mourning the play's tragedies in the final scene.

"My heart is not compact of flint nor steel," Michael begins, "Nor can I ... break?"

"Utter," reminds Sammie gently.

He pauses, nearly stutters, then remembers: "Nor can I utter all our bitter griefs. But floods of tears will drown my oratory, and break my utterance, even in time, when it could move ye to attend me most, and force you to commiseration...."

"Excellent, excellent!" Sammie shouts, when it's all over. "It can't get any better than that!"

On the way back in, Sammie stops at his office. He almost single-handedly runs the prison's database system, which handles a huge volume of state information.

Sammie's already been offered a high-paying job with Captiva Software Corp., if the parole board decides in his favor in 2003. "I hope to be released," he says. "I know I'm ready."

When he's finished at work, Sammie heads back to his room. The cell blocks are 'dorms,' cellmates are 'roommates,' the central corridors 'day rooms.' But for all the collegiate language, there's no question that this is prison. The place is an assault of constant noise: metal doors crashing, guards shouting from behind shatterproof glass, keys jangling, walkie-talkies spewing garbled directives, and cheap shoes squealing on hard-shined cement.

A shelf runs the length of Sammie's narrow room, covered with pictures and albums. He proudly shows photos Desi has sent, and snapshots of his stepdaughter, Jen. Sammie married her mother when Jen was six, and he was already in prison. He remains close to Jen, though he's now amicably separated from her mother.

Both Jen and Desi plan to be at the play. Sammie's learning a sonnet to recite for them at intermission: "If I could write the beauty of your eyes," he reads, "And in fresh numbers number all your graces, The age to come would say, 'This poet lies - Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.' " He pauses, looking abstractedly out past thick window bars at the field, then repeats: "The age to come would say, 'This poet lies.' "

Act V: expectation

The afternoon of the first performance, the actors are frantic. A group gathers early to move the backdrop into the gymnasium. The newer guys stay on, to pace and pray.

Just before the show, Curt reads a story about violinist Itzhak Perlman. When he broke a string in performance, Perlman reworked an entire symphonic piece as he played it, rather than stop. Afterward, he said, "Sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left."

The performance has only a few hitches. By the second show, the men are more confident. But the next night, preparing for relatives and friends, everybody's tense with expectation.

When Sammie makes his entrance, he scans the crowd. Desi couldn't make it, but Jen is sitting up front with her grandmother. At intermission, she and Sammie compare the sizes of their hands. Leonard stands shyly with his parents. Demetrius surprises his mom with his GED diploma, and she dissolves in tears.

After intermission, Titus's son Lucius leads an army against Rome. On the way, he discovers Aaron, fleeing with his son. Aaron accepts his own death sentence, but pleads for his child's life. When Lucius agrees, Aaron delivers a hateful speech, wishing he had caused others more pain.

By contrast, Sammie, just before this performance, insists that this newspaper story be told in a way that won't further hurt Carol's family. "I don't know that there exists such a way," he says. Then, crying: "I'm very sorry for what I've done. The tragedy is that I cannot change it. I can change me, but I cannot do anything to help them - to ease their pain."

Leonard has also been thinking about his victims. He says he draws on his experience with the courts to play the vengeful Tamora. "I am guilty," he admits, "and I could die in here." But, he says, the police didn't discover all his crimes; he confessed to several spontaneously, without a plea bargain. He was a Christian then, and believed if he was honest, he could appeal for a merciful sentence.

But he received a harsher sentence, and says he thinks of that when he's playing Tamora. "We like to think of ourselves as merciful. But when something is really wrong, when somebody truly harms you, mercy goes out the window, and everyone reverts back to being Tamora."

Leonard has been serving time for six years. He came to prison with four kids, a master's degree, and computer skills. Under Chandler's strict system, he's more likely to be relocated than the other actors, since he isn't involved

in a college program and doesn't act particularly grateful to be where he is.

Onstage, Tamora and her sons come disguised to Titus's home for her final revenge. He dispatches her on a fool's errand, then has his kinsmen unmask her sons and slit their throats. Titus cooks the boys into a pie, and invites Saturninus and Tamora, as well as his family, to dinner. The meal ends in a stabbing frenzy, with only Lucius, Marcus, and an old Roman lord left standing.

That's Michael's cue. He starts out uncertain, but lands his lines. Backstage, the actors cheer silently. The play ends, as it has every night, with a standing ovation.

The actors hurry to say goodbye. Those without visitors stand backstage, wolfing down pie.

The mood this evening has been more electric than at any other performance, but there's another difference as well.

If it were possible those other nights, as the actors took their bows, for anyone simply to enjoy the moment - without thinking of the men's crimes, of the sorrow they've caused, of the abuse they often have endured, of how they live now - it is impossible tonight. The audience and actors leave through separate doors: the inmates to be strip-searched and hurry back to the dorms for a head count, their guests to go home, or anywhere at all.

Curt and corrections officer Karen Heath are the last to leave. Heading down the long corridor, they pass some of the guys who've been searched, including Sammie and G, chatting in a holding area. When the men see Karen and Curt, they grin and wave - and keep waving until the door clangs shut behind them.

Send e-mail comments to Andy at and

Mary at

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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