[E]fforts to help Shakespeare speak to prisoners reach outside audiences in more or less the same form. An important step is to frame the production as an opportunity for the inmates, one which they always seize with enthusiasm and gratitude. Criminals without any other qualifiers — especially in maximum security, where a disproportionate number of the performance stories take place — are generally depicted as menacing orange crime machines. A convict who’s excited about Shakespeare, the audience imagines, might be worth rehabilitating. And just as important, the inmates have to be participating of their own free will because that’s the only way the redemption story works. America wants to see penitent self-improvers, not dancing marionettes.
But there’s a big difference between consent and compliance. In a heavily controlled environment like the prison, it’s hard to talk honestly about voluntary participation. After all, no one wants to be in a prison production of Shakespeare. The New York Times in their feature about a performance at Rikers and This American Life both mention that actors in productions they covered have previous experience, but there’s no analysis as to why Hollywood extra and felon might be overlapping categories. Of course there are actors in prison. The plays they choose are small-scale dramas suited to the security concerns of the hosting institutions. The tragedies aren’t ensemble numbers; they don’t have roles for anyone who might want to join, like a school play does. That authorities can fill an audition with people who prefer being in Hamlet in prison to just being in prison isn’t much evidence of anything except perhaps incarceration levels. Certainly not the indomitable human spirit."
thanks for the Sunday Reading nod (“Fact and Fetish”)!
Today I said the words “selfish and honest” and wondered suddenly how that had become one of my...