What Do Prisoners Have To Do With Shakespeare?
I first met William in the bowels of Auburn Prison. He came in with the other volunteers of The Phoenix Players Theater Group (PPTG), which Clifton and I co-created as well as co-founded with others.
At first blush, William appeared a bookish kind of gent. I must confess I was intimidated because of his rep. I had heard he was kind of standoffish, which was true. His grammar was ridiculous and incomprehensible.
We, the men of PPTG, had requested that William come visit us. Now that he was there, we acted like skittish colts around this stallion of literature. To calm us, we were put through our paces by being shown various films of William’s work. We were given background and definitions of things we did not understand. After months of this, we were told to select one of William’s works to perform.
The only thing I had ever heard of was Marc Antony’s eulogy, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” I had no idea who William was in the fifth grade. Mrs. Jackson, my teacher at 22 School in Rochester, New York, would put on performances every year. I cannot remember whether I was selected or volunteered to play Marc Antony, but I have never forgotten those first lines.
On the road to becoming human again, one must reconnect to submerged and repressed memories. The process of becoming one of the living dead is murdering all pathways leading to feeling. The process of becoming human again is as painful as becoming one of the living dead. Until PPTG, if you asked me “Did I have any happy memories?”, I would have told you “No”.
The reason I selected “To Be or Not To Be,” had nothing to do with Hamlet. I did not even know who Hamlet was, but I have heard those words all my life.
Up until the point when PPTG was created, my life was stillborn with the pregnancy of those words, “To Be or Not To Be.” I was struggling with the question of being a mere shadow of a human being or being human.
I once read Plato’s “Allegory Of the Cave.” To me, Prison is Plato’s cave. All people who live in prison, or work there, believe shadows cast against forty feet of wall is human nature.
As a prison administration thinketh, so does a man become. We, our beast of burdens, we, our wretched of society, we, our second thief upon the cross because he believed he was his larceny. How can humans do better if society does not care what its left hand (mass incarceration) is doing behind prison walls?
The zenith of my transformation was becoming a solo performance artist. In the beginning of PPTG I labored under the misconception, if one has ever told a lie, one could act. I had no idea getting down to the nitty-gritty of PPTG’s brand of acting, meant being stripped of my prison flesh.
To have been a part of PPTG’s origin meant being ridiculed, laughed at, sneered at, called bitch or queer. Imagine the unsophisticated mind seeing men in green pants doing pirouette-like warm-ups. We were immediately branded fairies. Some of us became self-conscious, and did not want to warm up, but we got through it.
Getting through it meant being flayed over prison coals, it meant being tarred and feathered and possibly run out of town. It meant being whispered about so much, one hears the architecture whispering, about the unmanly things going on in rehearsal. It meant being shamed back into the ranks, because prisoners did not do ungodly things like stare into another prisoner’s eyes or touch another prisoner’s face.
In my estimation, in order to become a solo artist, one must be able to connect to the work that is being performed. Hamlet speaks about, “The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks, that flesh is heir to….”. The excruciating pain of being buried alive for thirty-five years is like Hamlet’s pain. “This a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die – to sleep -To Sleep! Perchance to dream – aye, there’s the rub…”, upon waking up to another foreboding prison morning.
A solo performer is the most misunderstood person in prison. PPTG met once a week, on Friday nights, for two hours. The bulk of our rehearsals were confined to our cells.
During my fifteen-year stint in Auburn, I was housed in Honor-Block for thirteen years. To be eligible one had to stay out of trouble for two years. Honor-Block offers certain amenities like a measure of peace and quiet. Disturbing the prisoner in the next cell with too much noise, could mean serious bodily harm. Because I had a prison program assignment/job, and college in the daytime, I could only practice at night.
Not only does a solo performer have to learn their lines, they must perfect the art of projecting one’s voice to the back of the theater. In prison, projecting one’s voice at night could end up in a fight in the morning, or worse. I had to learn my lines with the silence of a lamb. Which brings up another problem with acting in prison. Talking to one’s self in the dead of the night, can get one branded as a bugout. A bugout is a mental health patient who takes meds. The stigmatization of being a bugout could have devastating consequences to a bugout’s body, from both sides, the green and the blue.
Part of my practice routine was to repeat my lines in different pitches like base and falsetto. I would repeat, “To Be or Not To Be,” at least twenty times alternating between pitches, in order to make the text resonate within my body.
Not only would I repeat the lines with alternating pitches, I would practice from different positions within my six by eight cell, as quietly as possible. I would move as silently as Hamlet’s father, to the creaky bed, then to the toilet. Sitting on the throne I would practice my lines. All my written text, and those of other playwrights, must run through my body.
Confinement is about the body being on lock-down. Physicality merged with a text, means freedom. In a performance I could be striding across the Serengeti one minute and strolling through the Great Birnam Wood or skipping over the high, Dunsinane Hill the next minute.
The practices of a solo performer in prison is the loneliest act ever. Honor-Block affords a prisoner a tad bit more freedom than general population. On days off, when I did not have to work, I would go to the back of the cell block and practice.
In my attempt to soliloquy Hamlet, I asked myself the same questions Hamlet asked himself, “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?”
Standing at the back of the cell block, with only Shakespeare as protection, I uttered “To Be,” and the first stone came from a sling, hitting me right between the eyes. “Mike’s bugging again!” In pain, I uttered the word “Or.”. The second stone came, smashing me in the mouth. “Mike, did you take your meds?” Bloodied but not bowed, I uttered “Not To Be,” and whop, a stone hit me right in the throat. “You ain’t no fucking Denzel!” To hell with Hamlet’s “That is the question,” I was more concerned with my own question, “Why was I standing here taking this abuse?” Before I could rage at my outrageous fortune, an arrow came as quiet as death, hitting me in the heart. “You ain’t shit and what you’re trying to do ain’t shit.” My whole life flashed before my eyes, and I was ready “To take arms against the sea of trouble standing before me, and by opposing, end them.
“Must give us pause: there’s the respect, that makes calamity of so long a life.” Seeing the faces of my co-founders, David, Shane, Kenny, Dee, and my beloved mentors, Steve and Bruce in my mind’s eye, I was not ready to shuffle off this mortal coil, because I was loved and needed.
By the way, I did perform “To Be or Not To Be” in front on an audience of 80 outside volunteers.
The question is what does Shakespeare have to do with prisoners? Shakespeare is life affirming for those who have no life.