JACKSON — Emilie Whelan asked for a show of hands: How many of the Dixon Correctional Institute prisoners had ever heard of William Shakespeare?
Close to two-thirds of the 150 prisoners gathered Tuesday in the prison's gym raised their hands.
She then asked how many of the men had ever found themselves forced to choose between bowing down or standing up with dignity, a question that alluded to the plot of the bard's "Taming of the Shrew."
Nearly every hand was in the air.
That kicked off the show, held for the first time at the prison as a way to bring theater to a new audience and to foster conversation about modern day issues through a 424-year-old play.
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Whelan directed the play produced by two New Orleans theater troupes: the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and the Cripple Creek Theatre Company.
“It’s just about bringing theater to people who don’t normally have access to it, especially Shakespeare," said Chaney Tullos, director of operations at the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival. “Shakespeare is seen as an elitist form of art, but it’s not; Shakespeare wrote for the Queen, but also for the groundlings (the people who could not afford the expensive seats). He wrote for everybody.”
Tuesday's performance — held in the round, just as in Shakespeare's day, at the prison gym — was part of a tour aimed at broadening the troupes' community reach, including the New Orleans Women and Children’s Shelter and the Treme Community Center.
"Taming of the Shrew," which follows a man’s attempt to “tame” the outspoken and violent-tempered Katherina as his wife, was chosen for the tour in part because it’s a comedy and laughing brings people together, Whelan said.
The troupes also added a twist in this production: turning the ending on its head so Katherina ultimately wins over the man.
“It’s also a play about female empowerment, which in 2017 feels apt and also there’s a woman director and there’s not a whole lot of us women directors out there,” Whelan said. “It also feels really important to be doing Shakespeare with bodies of color and having there be more black performers than white performers in the ensemble shaped the way we talked about the power dynamics in the play.”
Terry Williamson, an inmate serving a 22-year sentence for armed robbery, had seen the play when he was in college at Louisiana Tech.
“I’m not surprised by (the ending twist) because we’ve seen it in the real world where the woman ends up being the one that’s taking control,” he said.
Williamson said that in his 15 years at Dixon, officials have never brought a Shakespeare performance to the inmates. Though this performance at Dixon may be a first, the idea of integrating Shakespeare into prisons isn’t a new one.
The troupes modeled the performance and tour from the Shakespeare Behind Bars program and Ten Thousand Things in Minneapolis, which Whelan worked with for six weeks last year.
The Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky has had 110 inmates putting on performances over the program’s 21 years. Of the 61 participating inmates who are now out of prison, all have obtained at least one degree from a local community college, according to the shakespearebehindbars.org website.
The program is also touted as a way to bring down recidivism rates: Participants have a 6.1 percent recidivism rate, compared to 29.5 percent in the state of Kentucky as a whole and the 67 percent national average.
Jan Porretto, a Dixon inmate convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated battery, was skeptical that Shakespeare alone could prevent men and women from returning to prison; however, other inmates said they believe it could happen.
“I believe every moment spent in prison doing something positive contributes to lowering recidivism,” said Robert Cox, who is serving 29 years on armed robbery and attempted murder convictions. “On the street, every moment was spent doing something negative and that’s what ultimately led to our imprisonment, but every program that they provide gives the opportunity to engage in something positive.”
Williamson filmed the performance to be streamed on the prison’s television system as part of his job. He said that as someone who is very involved in the prison and keeps an eye on his fellow inmates, he has slowly seen morale rise and he thinks the performance will add to that.
“I believe something like this is going to help it,” Williamson said. “You wonder why, it’s because you watch the television and it’s the same thing all the time. This was something completely different. Something that they’re going to go back and talk about.”