I really anticipated not being able to write a reflection that would be of much value after this visit. I was excited to see my little sister light up a stage, as I expected she would, and she did. It occurred to me that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first Shakespeare play I could recall seeing staged professionally, a kind of symmetry which is interesting, but so distant now that any comparison would be irrelevant. I thought about how Shakespeare has mostly been burdensome to me, reading Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar in high school, mostly deftly avoiding The Bard in college, holding the hand of the love of my life through a couple of performances at the sadly departed Oracle Theater, being forced to teach him to university students in New York this coming Fall…in all, not much connection to speak of. Alisha was excited, that is really all that mattered, and I had every suspicion that her excitement would translate to the stage. But that I would be able to translate that excitement of hers, the only real curiosity or interest I had in the production at all, was far more in question. As it happens, there was more than enough to share, and the best antidote to my own Shakespeare skepticism to date. But more on that shortly.
The prison really is a wholesale despicable institution, which ought to have been made more than clear over these previous entries. The check-in process for what is obviously a mass of visitors, many of whom are entering the prison for the first time, is completely asinine and reflects the open disdain of the institution and its staff for the people (and anyone associated with them) therein. More than an hour after the supposedly mandatory, strictly enforced entry time, we are shaken down and then herded in groups to the auditorium. We see a barren garden space, and a variety of other facilities which are vacant and disused due to funding cuts and general neglect. I cannot help but imagine myself in one of the empty meeting rooms, lecturing college credits in one subject or another, and am stricken that I could not do so even if I lived in proximity. The local university which co-sponsors this project must have a flock of adjuncts who would jump at the chance for more work, and—here I speak from direct experience—the opportunity to teach an especially motivated student body who can truly benefit from quality instruction. But, alas.
The theater’s only decoration is comprised of a few religious tapestries, assumedly sewn by prisoners at some point, enforcing a broadly Christian uplift, “Christ loves his daughters,” and that sort of pabulum. The ironies of Christ, himself a death row prisoner, used as inspiration or solace for these very flesh-and-blood inmates, forced to squander their energies in the name of the state’s wholly backwards notions of “rehabilitation” and “paying a debt to society” are beyond gauche—they are aggressively sacrilegious.
The stage and wings curtains are irresistible to these incarcerated women who are bubbling over with anticipation, not least because they are in a costume other than the one the state has deemed appropriate for their confinement. They poke their heads through at intervals, disavowing every Broadway convention, waving to their audience and pointing out faces to join to names, promises kept, reunions nigh. Some of these families and loved ones have seen their absent mothers and daughters and sisters in nothing but drab polos and scrubs-like pants for years. Today they wear dresses (like our Alisha), or men’s trousers with suspenders, or, in an entirely convincing bit of gender fluidity, a construction worker’s outfit, including an expertly-traced mustache and beard. I could not have been alone wondering how a couple of men were allowed to be in the cast, so carefully and convincingly were makeup and costume applied. Alisha warned us that some of her fellow dancers were a bit…understudied…and I braced for the director’s introduction, which could go a few different ways, most of them bad. What we got was mercifully brief, focusing on the efforts of this cast and the students who had helped stage the production. I exhaled at the lack of condescension and braced for a staging of my own partner’s favorite play, basking in the good will and cheer of so many who shared the same wound of absence, the sting of which these few hours would reduce at least temporarily.
In a word: it was good. I am writing this at all because it was really, truly good. These women seem to realize—through hard, terrible, hourly reminders—that this is a singular opportunity, and if they do not exploit it to the fullest, they will regret it. Or perhaps they have all learned to act due to some other exigencies, some alternative dramatic requirements. I can only use my sister’s experiences as a guide, but judging from those, I know well that one is forced to give private and semi-public performances constantly inside these walls, which are designed as much to shield the inside from the outside as the other way around. You act for a spectrum of COs who are openly hostile and racist, pretend both to themselves and you that they want to be your friend, try to fuck you and then brutalize you for fucking anyone else, treat you as the subhuman that the system has decided you are, often all wrapped up in the same person. You act for paternalistic wardens who cannot decide between using saccharine platitudes about rehabilitation or stentorian, cinematic, marshal discipline. You act for your fellow inmates, friend and enemy, confederate and accomplice, snitch and elder, lover and indifferent. You act for yourself, whatever you need to be that day or hour, isolated in seg, forced into community at mess, literally enslaved at work. Alisha acted on the outside too: she was a worker and right up until and through the role changing from service provider to prospective Black sex worker homicide victim, she understood her roles and acted with aplomb. I do not have to imagine very far that these women who share the stage with her all have analogous versions of the same.
So it is not that I am surprised that they have some predilection for acting, exactly. I am not all that shocked that they hit their cues, their blocking, they recall all the lines nearly without fail; good acting is like that, you forget somewhat that it is being performed live at all. What surprises me—leaves me gobsmacked, would be an apt descriptor—is the exercise of what has been left to each actor’s discretion. The principal actors’ line delivery is little less than revelatory; it never before struck me how much annoyance and frustration could be bound up in a Shakespeare play. Many of these women are essentially shouting their lines, spitting out the syllables at fever pitch emphasis, challenging one another to find the next emotional register. In a play with relatively little actual fighting and death, Puck’s mischievousness is given a nefarious edge, the two “male” leads are violent not just which each other but with their chosen and unchosen paramours, and Nick Bottom is portrayed so uniquely in his boorish effulgence that I will not be able to consider the character without reference to this performance ever again. So, again: it is good. But it is something else, an excess of the words on the page and the usual Shakespearean innuendo and narrative tautness. It is, for lack of a more immediate term, an expression of longing which is palpable without becoming maudlin or overwhelming the play itself. If I were prone to discerning magic in such a place, which I have been trained not to be, I would see the walls of the small auditorium crack and shudder at the force of the line readings, the COs’ legs buckle at the explosive passions portrayed before them, the warden’s head bowed down at the madrigal music, hundreds of years and thousands of miles divorced from its designed context, issuing from the back of the hall. But the only magic which endures is that which recommits me to destroying these institutions, and the fire in the eyes of the young woman onstage about whom I have come to care so dearly.
Speaking of which, the performance continues long after the curtain drops. We are in line for photographs with our beloved actress, and when we attempt to get quick duo shots in each combination of the three of us with her, Alisha and mine is deemed excessive.
If there is any cosmic justice in a universe that would place this haughty, sickly condescending woman as master over these others, then she has made a grand mistake.
I know Alisha is emotional in that she is empathic and extremely sensitive to the needs, wants, and triggers of those around her. I have known her in love, in despair, in optimism (nearly unflappable), in muted sadness. But anger, truly personal, raging anger, not until now. The expression of “fire in one’s eyes” is hackneyed to meaninglessness and it may yet be proven that it was some trick of the light in that auditorium, but I saw in those eyes an enflamed scene of a great, righteous hand contacting each outstretched digit at once against the smug, ridiculous face of the master in a ‘POP!’ that would have reverberated for a full second in that theater. Saved from certain assault by the prospect of months in isolation and an extended sentence that would keep my sister from a niece and nephew born since she was inside, as well as all the critical work she needs to be outside to do, I have to believe the warden will carry an ember of the hatred she sparked in this young woman who on the one day she was able to look something like she desired requested an additional photo and was denied. We have since learned this warden was walked out of the place by officers in disgrace, and I am forced to reconsider my view of magic in Decatur Correctional. I hope her cheek itches eternally where that right hand might have scratched it.
The post-show visit itself nearly did not happen as we waited the better part of an hour to be released from the auditorium, and then another for the guards to notify Alisha once we made it into the visiting room. Most families were turned away from visiting at all, which was wrenching, and had we not come from so far I would have requested that we let some others take our place. But it is nearly impossible not to be selfish with our modicum of time. You know what happens next, a queer combination of a heart swelling and then fracturing, breathing in the moments which I hope I am soon given license to forget, replacing them with sitting side-by-side at a bar, or on a beach, or texting silly or important things at will. But today I was inspired in an unexpected way, and that is worth recalling at the instants when my own creative life feels threateningly vacant. It is cause for hope that the worst that can be done cannot extinguish what is, yes, magical in these caged women.