Prisoners find their voice through Shakespeare at Groveland prison

  JUL 30, 2018

The universal themes of Shakespeare—love, jealousy, revenge, and redemption—are relatable to almost everyone. That includes some prisoners at Groveland.

They’re part of a theatre education program called Voices UnCaged. It’s designed to work in Correctional Facilities, in large part due to program founder Chad Bradford’s childhood.

When he was 8, his father went to prison for about five years. Now he wants to help rehabilitate prisoners, including those getting ready to be released.

“Every Saturday me and my sister and my Mom would hop in the car from Little Rock, drive all the way to Texarkana, Arkansas which is a good two hours and 45 minutes away or so, and that was our Saturday. So we stayed in contact… Anytime I think you go through some kind of suffering like that you come out stronger,” Bradford said.

Bradford started in Arkansas with Voices UnCaged after getting a fellowship through National Arts Strategies. He said the program faced a lot of resistance there.

“Who do I want coming home to my community? Someone who has had this theater training? Who has invested their live engaged in self-inquiry? Or someone who hasn’t felt anything but punishment for years and years? Who has been told they’re garbage for years and years,” said Bradford.As the prisoners rehearse, you can see how supportive they are in a group setting.

Marshall Gilcrease is participating for a second straight year.

“At first I was against the idea of joining. Who wants to do a play in front of a bunch of inmates at an almost 1000 inmate prison? You’d be afraid of being laughed at,” he said.

Gilcrease was talked in to joining by his fellow prisoner Thomas Lawson. Gilcrease said this program helped them form a friendship.

“I learned more about who he was after this event last year than I did beforehand. I think the majority of people wear a mask. When they are brought to a level of embarrassment in front of everybody, that mask is momentarily removed,” Gilcrease said.

“We supported each other more for sticking through to it. It’s not exactly easy pretending these plays, Romeo and Juliet in a prison setting… that’s not an easy one. The fact that we both stay committed to our goals and actually stayed in it, we gained a lot of respect for each other and we were able to form a friendship out of it,” he said.

Outside of Romeo and Juliet, the group performed excerpts from Hamlet and Macbeth.

“You can see the raw emotion of somebody when they’re reading Macbeth. Just like we were doing. Is this a dagger I see before me? They are questioning that. They are questioning their sanctity,” Lawson said. 
Lawson said when they read in front of each other, you can see their inner-conflict come to the surface.

For this group of prisoners, it’s a chance to express themselves in ways they couldn’t otherwise.

“You can’t just speak up to your loudest volume and you can’t just be your angriest or be your saddest. You can’t expose yourself that kind of way. You have to be at a more calmer level,” he said.

Lawson said he’d look towards doing Community Theater once he leaves Groveland.

“We’ve done some wrong things, but it’s nice that people know that we’re not just bad people,” said Lawson. “The staff sees us and they don’t act like we’re something that’s just to be discarded and left away. They act like we’re clay. We can be molded. We can be better.”

Anthony Adams has struggled with parole in the past. He thinks this time will be different.

“To remember this freedom by coming down here is like a blessing in disguise… I’ve already has my mind expanded,” said Adams.

Like most at Groveland, he will soon be released back into the Western New York Community.

“When I get back, it’s going to give me something to be able to introduce to some of the younger kids… For me to be able to successfully complete parole this time would be one hell of a step for me,” he said.

Groveland Superintendent Shawn Cronin says it’s difficult for people to see the humanity in others if they don’t see it in themselves. That’s something arts-based programs may help with.

“What we do with them here is important,” said Cronin. “Not because we want to coddle them or maybe treat them better than they deserve. You can’t get around the idea we’ve locked them up, but we didn’t throw away the key. They’re coming back to a neighborhood. They’re going to be your neighbor tomorrow.”

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