2008 KSF Audubon Youth Development Center Review
February 17, 2008
“Men at some time are masters of their fates”
- ‘Julius Caesar’, Act I, Scene II
On March 20th, forty cherubic faced teens from Louisville’s Audubon Youth Development Center stepped off a bus and into the clean, crisp air. They were laughing and smiling at the prospect of beginning what they had been calling their “joke” field trip, but a quick bark of “hands behind your back and line up,” from the corrections officer who had been riding in the bus with them wiped the smiles away. The teens, who are in a treatment program for male Public and Youth Offenders requiring a minimum-security placement, were about to embark on a journey that would change the way many of them thought about the world, the prison system and themselves. They were about to spend a few hours with the inmates of Shakespeare Behind Bars at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex.
Each of the forty boys have been participating in a Shakespeare’s Studio Artist Residency at Louisville’s Audubon Youth Development Center. Using selections from “Julius Caesar”, the students are learning about themselves and studying themes such as greed, peer pressure, and corruption. They have been using Shakespeare’s text as a tool to learn tolerance and conflict resolution, but on the morning of March 20th, many are still resistant to the process, and prefer to jeer at each other’s efforts in class than participate with honesty.
“Give me the first five boys,” calls out another corrections officer from inside Luther Luckett. Five boys walk in. They are asked to walk through a metal detector, ushered to another officer who takes down their name, and tags them with an ID bracelet, then sent to yet another officer to be searched. Any smiles left on their faces surface only from nervous energy. Once the boys are processed, they are taken through a large door that closes with a jarring bang behind them. They are then escorted to a room, and pass by two more doors that close with steely thunder. None of the boys speak. They sit and wait for the inmates to arrive.
When the inmates arrive, they demonstrate with incredible focus the same group activities the boys have been attempting for the past weeks. With great respect for each other and their art, the inmates prove that there is no room for jeering in a rehearsal room, and quickly embrace any mistakes that are made, and instead of judgment, there is encouragement. The inmates move quickly into a scene from Julius Caesar that requires crowd participation and the boys are encouraged to chant and call out as if they were part of the scene. The boys are genuinely engaged, and, for more than half of them, this is their first experience of live theatre.
When the scene work draws to an end, the boys are encouraged to ask questions of the inmates, and at the beginning, most of the questions stem from the adults who have accompanied them. “Do you hope to pursue and acting career, when you are paroled?” An inmate answers, “I might, if I was eligible for parole. I am here for life.” When told that many of the boys wrote journal entries about what a joke they thought this trip was going to be, one inmate walked to the center and stated: “Those converse shoes you are kicking, that navy blue uniform, I kicked them back in 1991. I was at Audubon when I was seventeen. I spent my time there, and three months after I got out, I killed someone and landed here before my eighteenth birthday. I am thirty-two now. Thirty two. Let me tell you prison is no joke. I arrived here, young and sweet like you, and the guys here, you think you’re Bad? Man you don’t know bad, you haven’t seen bad until you are on the inside.” The inmate continued on to tell the boys of injustices he witnessed, injustices that were down to him. The years and years he has spent growing old in a cell, losing contact with his friends and his family, the time he had to learn the lessons of life that he wished he had embraced so many years ago when he was wearing their uniform, wearing those converse shoes.
Several boys were noticeably upset, some red-faced and tear stained. One young man raised his hand, wanting to be acknowledged. Invited to speak, the young man stood up and said, “I thought I was bad, that prison was nothing, that I could do my time like anybody. But I heard what you said man, and I don’t want to go to prison. I don’t want to go. I am going straighten up man. I am.” He then sat down and cried. So too did the boys around him.
Before their time together was over, one inmate warned, “you are going to go back to school today, feeling good, feeling like you just heard the best preacher in the world at a Sunday sermon. You are going to believe that you have been changed. But come next Monday, that feeling will have faded, and you are going to go back to feeling the way you did before you came in here. You are going back to your old ways. But I implore you, next time you are faced with a decision of doing right or doing wrong, reach way down into your memory bank and recall what we told you here today. Remember how badly you didn’t want to be like us, and chose right. Chose right.”
As a culmination of the residency, in late April the boys will return to the prison to share some of their Shakespeare work and discoveries with the Shakespeare Behind Bars ensemble.
This program is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance.com. The field trip was a cooperative effort by Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Audubon Youth Development Center, Luther Luckett Correctional Complex and Kentucky State Penitentiary .