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What Does a Prisoner Think of “Richard III?”

The Mobile Shakespeare Unit brings the Bard to unlikely places

Richard III might hit you differently if you’re a prisoner, watching the violence unfold just a few feet from your cell. The rise and fall of the murderous king, so bent on power that he twists his soul, might have special resonance if you’re in a social reentry program for recently released convicts, and monologues about destiny might change color if you’ve recently lost your home.

But if you’re a prisoner, or you’re homeless, how many chances will you get to see Shakespeare? Or how about if you’re a senior citizen who can’t physically travel to a matinee? Or if you live on the outskirts of New York, where Manhattan can seem like a foreign country?

And if communities like these don’t have access, then what happens to the theatre? Richard III is a thrilling play, but if thousands of New Yorkers never have the chance to see it, will it curdle in their minds? If they think of it at all, will it seem unwelcoming? Will the theatre itself seem like a locked door they can’t enter?

Those questions drive the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, which brings professional Shakespeare productions to communities that don’t typically have access to the arts. The program just finished a 15-date tour with Richard III, visiting prisons, community centers, senior facilities, and even the Fort Hamilton Army Base in Brooklyn. (The production is now playing for general audiences at the Public’s downtown home. It runs through August 25.)

According to Barry Edelstein, director of the Public’s Shakespeare Initiative, the Mobile Unit’s audiences are happy to be included. “It’s wild,” he says. “Calling out, talking back to the characters, yelling and screaming when stuff happens, laughing uproariously, gasping.”
He continues, “The historians tell us that’s what it was like in the Elizabethan theatre, raucous and noisy, and that’s why Shakespeare constantly had characters turning out front and asking questions. And you think, ‘Well, in our theatre, that never happens.’ The audience sits in the dark, the actors are in the light, there’s an imaginary wall between them. You think, ‘Well, how could [that wildness] be?’

“But you do Shakespeare at a women’s prison, and you go, ‘Oh, I get it. That’s how it could be.’ Somebody turns to the audience and says, ‘What did you think of what I just did?’ And somebody will tell you, ‘I think it sucked.’”

But the Mobile Unit may inspire more than a good time. On July 26, the company performed for the Fortune Society, an organization in Queens that helps recently released prisoners reenter society. “We had a predominantly young, African-American audience, many of whom are male,” says Ron Cephas Jones, who plays Richard. “For them to be privy to Shakespeare and see themselves, an African-American man, playing a lead role in a Shakespeare play can give them hope. They’re sitting there going, ‘I see myself. I see myself doing Shakespeare.’”

That might also awaken something deeper. “When you start to bring art to people, and they identify and see themselves, you can see it in their eyes,” Jones says. “It might not only be artistic. [If you're in that audience], you’re seeing it from a socio-political point of view. Why isn’t there more theatre in your community? What is that about, when art should be accessible to everybody? Then, it’s not just an artistic experience, but a socio-political experience.”

It’s certainly plausible that Mobile Shakespeare could reach someone that way—that it could foster a revelation that leads to bigger questions about access, economics, and the arts.

Edelstein adds, though, that some Mobile Shakespeare audiences are already passionate about the Bard. Recalling a 2010 production of Measure for Measure, he says, “We got letters from one of the men’s prisons from guys who clearly knew their Shakespeare and wanted to talk about choices that we’d made. It’s probably true that the majority of people are seeing theatre for the first time, but I’ve learned that it’s impossible to make generalizations about these audiences.”

However, as enthusiastic as they might be, these audiences are not always easy to play for. Performing in Rikers Island or the Brownsville Recreational facility just isn’t the same as being at the Public’s hip, comfortable space. “That’s the difficult part about the tour,” says Jones. “In some instances, people are eating. In some instances, people are getting up and walking around. You’ve got guards. You have heat exhaustion in certain prisons [where] there’s no air conditioner. So it is really a Zen-like type of concentration to be able to stay with the story and focus with all these distractions.”

However, he adds, “I do know that once I get in it, I’m in it, and at the end, the payback is looking into the faces and talking to these people and them thanking you wholeheartedly for what you’ve given them.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus

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