For 20 years, Shakespeare Behind Bars at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Oldham County has guided a group of inmates through an intensive study and performance of the works of William Shakespeare. Once a year, they mount a full-length performance.
The free tickets are in high demand; there are only four performances open to the public, and friends and family of the actors get first dibs. You have to enter a lottery and undergo a background check to attend.
So, even before you get to the prison, it feels special. By the end of the evening, you’ll understand that SBB is not just a transformational experience for the inmates in the program, but for the audience as well.
This week, SBB is performing “Pericles” — often called the “‘Indiana Jones’ of Shakespeare” — under the guidance of Matt Wallace, the company’s artistic director for seven years who is also the artistic director of Kentucky Shakespeare.
Each of the 35 roles — men, women and children — is played by 18 inmates who have been preparing for this play since last year’s production ended, actively meeting and rehearsing for nine months. The hard work and study of everyone involved is evidenced in the nuanced acting and seamless juggling of changing settings, costume pieces, roles and even entrances and exits. It just works. All of it.
This year’s production is bare bones — no sets, no full costumes. When the actors aren’t performing, they’re most often sitting in chairs on stage. Wallace makes excellent use of multimedia with projected illustrations, music and a shadow-puppet jousting scene that had one of my companions, who produces a lot of local theater, saying, “I’m so mad I didn’t think of that.”
The actors have varying levels of talent, of course. Some are as seasoned and comfortable on stage as many of our local talent. Some are a little ragged and stilted, but none enough so that they break the spell. Two of the SBB members have been in the program since its inception.
When you arrive at the Correctional Complex, you go through a rigorous security clearance. You’re only allowed to bring your ID and your car keys into the facility. The security rules limit the amount of jewelry and type of clothing you wear (nothing provocative, nothing that could be construed as transmitting a disrespectful message).
You’re herded around in groups by security guards. One set of doors must close before another opens. Metal detectors. Security bracelets. Barbed wire.
And that’s when it first strikes you that these guys in SBB have done bad things. This kind of security isn’t warranted for shoplifters and petty thieves.
But despite the fact that the actors perform in their prison uniforms, their past is masked by the magic of the show.
However, as you leave the chapel where the play is produced and exit into the beautiful La Grange twilight, you’re quickly reminded again as inmates bang loudly on their cell windows as you work your way through the prison yard to the main entrance.
In his bio notes, actor James Prichard, who is in his ninth season with SBB, says, “We all long for forgiveness and none of us want to be remembered for the worst things we have done.”
Many of the bio notes in the Playbill are heart-wrenching. Charles Young, in his fifth year with SBB, plays a character simply known as “Daughter.” She is the victim of her father’s incest and viciousness. Young writes about playing the part, “It’s really small but profound. The actions of her father leave scars for life (just as my past actions did to my family, my victim, and my victim’s family, please forgive me!).”
Michael Malavenda, in his sixth year, says, “The part I play shows me that if I don’t continue to change the way I used to think, I will spend all my life in prison or worse.”
Stephen Haynes, in his third year, chose to highlight the benefits of joining SBB: “A higher level of literacy, conflict resolution, a sense of responsibility as well as accountability for our actions, and probably a hundred other things that I am not smart enough to articulate account for the low recidivism rate of SBB. We are not in SBB to learn how to be actors. We are in SBB to learn how to be better people.”
The national recidivism rate is 67 percent. The recidivism rate for SBB alumni is 5.1 percent.
“Pericles” is one of Shakespeare’s truly ensemble pieces, but it is also one of his least loved. Most researchers say Shakespeare merely finished a play that was started by another author.
If you were lucky enough to get tickets for this production and aren’t familiar with the play, don’t expect Shakespeare’s usual mastery. There are plot holes big enough to float a ship through and plot devices so ludicrous that members of the audience audibly scoffed.
Blame the Bard. Wallace and the members of SBB push through those flaws with poise and a small measure of camp.
The show also featured a short piece by The Journeymen, SBB’s program for inmates ages 18-21, and a Q&A session at the end of “Pericles.”
The program was founded by Curt L. Tofteland, who is currently administering several SBB programs in Michigan.
The production runs through May 14. The lottery for next year’s production — yet to be announced — will happen in early April 2016. At risk of making tickets more competitive, I suggest signing up for the newsletter so you can be notified when the lottery opens.