Shakespeare Behind Bars
THE MOVIE You first see Sammie going over lines in the yard. A big, thick man with a shaved head and tree-trunk arms jutting out from his tan-on-tan prison garb, Sammie paces back and forth as another inmate feeds him lines as he needs them from a soliloquy. His voice gains confidence as he goes along, until he finds himself in the part and starts rhinoceros-charging through the speech in a velvety, stentorian boom, sounding every bit a man of imposing force.
When you actually meet Sammie the inmate in Kentucky’s Luther Luckett prison--where the warden, who admits he doesn’t like prisons, casually mentions that it was built to hold about 485 men and currently houses approximately 1,100--he looks as fragile and nervous as a canary. He sits with his hands in his lap and, as calmly as he can without having to pause too often to regain his composure as his eyes become wet but never tear, talks about how his own sexual abuse, parental rejection, and what he feels fed the inner turmoil that led him into a highly dysfunctional affair and, eventually, to strangling his lover.
Director Hank Rogerson’s Shakespeare Behind Bars is remarkable not only because it follows a fascinating, nearly yearlong prison educational program that engages inmates to stage the Bard. Nor is it merely affecting for the way it cannily disarms you with scenes of 20 men giddily and actively taking part in a creative endeavor and then allowing them to disclose what sort of, in some cases heinous, crimes they committed to be there. No, what stains the brain are the complicated and sometimes downright poignant ways in which these men interpret their play, The Tempest. Each man finds something personal in his role and in the entire play, and--honestly--nothing quite prepares you for a rich, creative, and practically poetic interpretation of the couplet "As you from crimes would pardon’d be/ let your indulgence set me free" coming from a man who sexually molested seven girls.
THE DISC In addition to director’s commentary, the DVD includes two engaging commentary tracks from participating prisoners, in addition to updates on the inmates themselves and, most enjoyable, entire uninterrupted scenes of their surprisingly lithe and lively performance of The Tempest. This production is probably not the first time that a scene from the Bard has been turned into a rap, but it doesn’t prevent you from appreciating such a daft touch all the same.