GRAFTON — Inmates at Grafton Correctional Institute’s Reintegration Center are performing “Macbeth” as a way to face their own emotions and criminal pasts.
William Shakespeare’s play tells a story of people facing guilt, madness and death over crimes committed to obtain power. Or, as one inmate who spoke on stage prior to a Tuesday performance put it, which elicited laughter from a group of about 20 of his fellow inmates watching “murder, mayhem, backstabbing and the kind of things that make us feel right at home.”
It’s not a half-hearted attempt on the part of the prisoners. They spend months memorizing the lines, making and using props and creating a musical score that is played by a two-piece inmate band that provides background music in the form of drums, vocals and keyboard sound effects.
Those who participate in the plays, often Shakespearean but not always, do so as part of Oberlin Drama at Grafton.
Phyllis Gorfain, professor of English emerita at Oberlin College, founded the troupe in 2012 and serves as artistic director. The collaboration has produced 10 plays over the past five years as well as a showcase of speeches, monologues and spoken poetry.
The performances typically reach numerous audiences including prison general populations, families and friends of inmates and outside guests such as politicians and prison officials.
Gorfain said the plays are nothing short of transformative for many involved.
Gorfain said she saw an inmate join who could barely talk in front of others or lift his eyes when holding a conversation. The inmate gained self confidence and now has five roles in “Macbeth” and told her his newfound love of theater is one of the best times he’s ever had in life.
And the inmate who played Lady Macbeth, who wasn’t identified by the prison, told Gorfain he chose the role because of Lady Macbeth’s immense remorse and guilt. He discovered through making Lady Macbeth human and complex that she was much more than a package of remorse, Gorfain said, she was a complex woman who made mistakes out of love.
Through this process the inmate was able to forgive himself, Gorfain said.
“He was consumed by his own remorse and guilt,” Gorfain said of the inmate who played Lady Macbeth. “He wanted a vehicle to be able to put that into words and to be able to express it to others.”
Shaun Bernard, 35, is finishing up his last year of a seven-year sentence for burglaries he committed. The Plain Dealer reported at the time that Bernard burglarized dozens of suburban homes to fuel a drug addiction.
Bernard said he was intimidated by Shakespeare, but as he began learning his roles, he couldn’t get enough. Taking part is therapeutic, he said, and a way to start moving beyond the person he was.
“When I did my crime, there was damage done,” he said. “I felt like, how am I ever going to be able to give back to a community which I scared and robbed of a sense of security? But years here have made me into a different person, and these plays give me chance to show people that. People come here and forget they are among a bunch of prisoners.”
William Charles, 41, a Marine Corps veteran who served as an aviation electrician from 2003-08 reaching the rank of corporal, is serving 17 months for burglary and will be released to a halfway house in about six months.
Charles, who played the roles of Porter, Seward, an apparition and servant, said he was asked to join by ODAG members because he is a huge Shakespeare fan.
“These plays were written in the 1500s, but they still resonate now,” he said. “There isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t stolen some element of Shakespeare.”
Charles, who also is in recovery from substance abuse, said he enjoys theater more than Alcoholics Anonymous because it involves serious introspection to be able to get inside of and relate to a character.
“Macbeth” is fitting for inmates, he said, because Lady Macbeth is always whispering into Macbeth’s ear and prodding him to do awful things for his own benefit that end up killing all involved.
That’s the story of many prisoners, he said.
“All of us are here because we made a bad decision,” Charles said. “Whether it was someone else involved or that little voice in our head that we listened to. It’s very relevant in that respect.”