Shakespeare in chains
Woman opens a new world for prison inmates as she directs them in Shakespearian plays
Published: Friday, October 4, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 4, 2013 14:10
In her particular line of work, one would imagine Agnes Wilcox is often asked, “Why do you care?”
When approached with such a question during her presentation at USU on Wednesday, she answered, because “they are human.”
Wilcox dedicated her career to the directing and teaching of Shakespeare's greatest plays in Missouri’s penitentiaries. Students, faculty and community members were invited to the David B. Haight Alumni Center as part of the English department’s speakers series, where Wilcox, the founder and artistic director of Prison Performing Arts, discussed why she hasn’t given up on these incarcerated felons.
“I believe that someone who participates in excellence will find ways to change themselves,” she said.
Wilcox said her experience working with inmates in directing and producing plays reaffirms her belief in the importance of literature. To demonstrate her point, she shared this story:
An inmate, whom Wilcox identifies as Danny, was cast to play the ghost of the king in a production of Hamlet in January 2002. She said Danny was adamant that he play that particular part, memorizing the lines ahead of time. Wilcox said he played the role incredibly well, but she didn’t know why he was so fixated with this part until he was interviewed by the radio show This American Life.
“When I first read the script, the words just jumped out at me,” he said. “They made me feel things I haven’t felt before. I took a man’s life, and I felt he was talking to me through that- that he wanted me to know what I had put him through…I am the body up there, but the words are coming from, mostly, William Pride, the man I killed.”
“Through the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Danny recognized his crime...It helped this man figure some things out,” Wilcox said. “He had allowed the play to speak to his deepest fears and regrets.”
Margot Sempreora, a volunteer with Prison Performing Arts, also shared an experience of witnessing what she referred to as a “collision of art and life.” Her troupe was reading through the second act of Hamlet, when Hamlet is deliberating with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, trying to decide if he can trust them. Sempreora described the intense emotion in the room when an inmate, pausing to make eye contact with another prisoner, read the line, “If you love me, hold not off.”
Sempreora said she witnessed the actor’s emotional response to his lines—this was just a man asking for the truth from his fellow inmates. Stories like this, said Wilcox, are testimony to the healing power of studying literature.
“Many of them have lived lives of sheer chaos and have not been able to create order in that chaos,” she said. “Many are in prison because they couldn’t connect one experience to another; they have limited problem solving skills. Literature, with its use of language and with its study of characters and circumstances, helps them see and articulate the process of cause and effect in human life. Sometimes, including their own.”
The inmates aren’t the only recipients of this relief through literature. The actors perform these plays for the occasional politician, visiting family or friends, but must often, their fellow inmates. Wilcox quoted an essay written by an actor who described her amazement when she realized the profound effect her play had on another inmate, who later thanked her for the performance.