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'Come, let's away to prison:' Inmates at RCI staged 'King Lear'

'Come, let's away to prison:' Inmates at RCI staged 'King Lear'

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Under watch of guards, Keith Brzezinski hugged his wife and daughter after his closing performance.

Still wearing a black cape that served as the key part of his costume in Shakespeare's "King Lear," the actor interacted freely - shaking hands with audience members and congratulating his 16 fellow castmembers - near what had served as the performance's stage.

"It was good," his 13-year-old daughter, Brenda, told him shyly. A moment later, she admitted it was a little strange watching him play a female role, Regan, one of Lear's daughters.

For the acting group, which dubbed itself the Muddy Flower Theatre Troupe, adopting the Shakespearean-era tradition of men playing all roles - including those of women - was not by choice, but necessity.

This troupe existed behind the razor-wire fences, guard towers and sliding metal doors of the Racine Correctional Institution, an all-male medium-security prison in Sturtevant.

Normally, interaction in the visitor's room - which was converted into a theater for the group's final performance - is more restrictive. Inmates must stay in beige chairs at the tables and can't get up without permission from the guards.

The ubiquitous guards remained to the sides on performance night, giving the inmate-actors a moment to experience freedom, however carefully controlled.

"It feels different to see him treated like a person up there," said Keith's wife, Sue Brzezinski.

To reach this point, these men spent nine months studying, memorizing and rehearsing what some Shakespeare experts consider the bard's greatest and most difficult work.

"It's his most varied and interesting play. It's got a wonderful broad cast of characters - very evenly distributed in terms of the cast, except for Lear of course," said Jonathan Shailor, the director and lead actor, on why he selected "King Lear." "I had an intuition that the men would connect in the way that I connected to the very primal issues of family, love and rejection."

The plot of the play follows a king's betrayal by two of his daughters and the honest devotion of a third that initially causes her


Shailor, who is chair of the communications department at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, previously taught an inmate-tailored communication course at RCI. He suggested a Shakespeare course after hearing about similar efforts at a few other prisons in the country.

The $2,500 it took to put on the "King Lear" course came from money the state set aside for education within the prison system.

Prison officials agreed it sounded like a good activity for inmates.

"It's another mechanism to let inmates have some self-worth, give them a sense of accomplishment, give them meaningful experiences that don't cost money," said Ronald Molnar, director of security.

Rehearsal Feb. 8

Inside the hallways of the Belle Venture School, the prison's education wing, the air smelled of sweat and industrial-strength cleaning supplies, possibly used earlier on the tile floor.

It was intimidating at first to sit among felons, men convicted of crimes ranging from vehicular homicide and drug offenses to sex offenses and armed robbery.

They dressed uniformly, in dark-green prison uniforms with ID badges dangling around their necks. The only difference was in shoes - each man wore a different style, from bright white sneakers to brown dress shoes.

Under the dull fluorescent lights in a library filled with signs outlining strict rules about how many people could stand in line and which areas were off limits, the inmates pushed aside tables to create an open area to practice.

"It's not the ideal space," Shailor said, "but in a prison I don't know what the ideal space would be."

The evening's starting activities included going around the circle saying one word from a four-line part of the play: "Vengeance, plague, death, confusion."

"I want to hear icy pronunciation," Shailor said, encouraging the men to over-exaggerate emotions in saying the words. The men respond creatively, roaring out some words like lions.

Later, they moved into rehearsing Act 2, Scene 4, a portion of the play when a storm blows in. "Because we're going to have a storm going, guys speak up," said Shailor, who isn't the only one making suggestions.

"Wouldn't the good time for the rain to come in (line) 283?" asked David Williams, who everyone knows as Fly. Williams was an eccentric member of the company who clearly craves attention, working his way over to the media observers whenever he could.

They tried doing the scene from memory, with one person reading along to prompt at the many occasions people still needed help. They rehearsed until 8:15 p.m., when care was taken to restore the tables to their original positions.

For nine months, this rehearsal scene repeated every Tuesday and Thursday - more frequently in the final weeks before the


Rehearsal March 16

The evening didn't begin with warm-up exercises.

Instead, Shailor passed around a program from a Broadway production of "Julius Caesar."

The playbill was signed in black marker: "To King Lear. Denzel Washington."

Shailor stood at the stage door in New York City to get the signature and dedication to the prison Shakespeare production. The men carefully passed it around the circle.

The night's warm-up exercise involved each person taking turns stepping into the middle of the circle to sing a song. Everything from Mr. Roger's theme to religious hymns were sung with passion. They were dedicated to this


To continue participating, one man delayed work on his appeal and another got permission to postpone transfer to another prison. Men memorized lines in their cells and secured permission to practice in small groups in their cell blocks.

"When you get to the door, everything that doesn't deal with `King Lear' needs to stay at the door," said Travail Walls, who played the villain Edmund.

The cast represents an odd gathering in prison, where people often gather by race and age.

"The way this group dynamic works is amazing," said Ken Spears, who played Oswald and the Old Man.

Final preparations

Because this is prison and space is tight - RCI houses 1,550 inmates, which is well over its original design capacity - access to the performance space was allowed just hours before


There were no spotlights or stage lights to illuminate the performers, save the harsh halogen bulbs that typically burn above a gym floor. The stage itself was nothing more than blue bed sheets hung over creatively used pieces of furniture and gym equipment. Despite its makeshift nature, it provided a backstage area and multiple entry points for actors.

Props had to be carefully screened by security director Molnar.

Seemingly harmless toy swords could pose a threat - mostly to the inmates if they were misconstrued in the wrong circumstances. Soft, foam-like martial arts training sticks eventually received approval to serve as swords.

Opening night

Backstage, the faces were filled with anticipation as inmates took their chairs in the


Assistant Director William White shot a nervous smile as he prepared the taped music - such as segments from "Lord of the Rings" movies - that the cast decided to add.

"This is a life-defining moment," White said before returning to last-minute checks of equipment.

No one was sure how the audience would react.

Months earlier, the troupe tried to recruit participants during a break at a hip-hop concert by performing a single scene.

"The response was not welcoming," Shailor said. "People laughed. We literally had to yell over the noise."

But the opening night audience was different. These men had picked up tickets and, in theory, wanted to be there.

An opening joke about turning off all cell phones and pagers - what would be considered contraband in prison - got a laugh.

So too did the first glance of men in women's dresses, but there was no significant heckling.

Later, when Gloucester's eyes were plucked - complete with fake blood and eyes - and when Lear sobs heavily for the death of his daughters, some laughed.

Much of Shakespeare's humor was lost on the audience, though the poor acoustics in the gym contributed to some difficulty hearing lines.

But the overall clarity of Shakespeare prevailed, even in a production trimmed for the prison environment from 4 hours to 2½ hours.

With the final line in the full performance, the audience rose to give a standing ovation.

"The best part was at the end when everyone stood up É and I almost f—ing cried," a euphoric Matthew Dickinson said after the performance.

"They pulled it off," Shailor reflected a few weeks later. "They impressed their peers."

Closing night

The last of the troupe's three performances was moved to the visitor's room, a converted chapel from the days when RCI was a Catholic boarding school.

The final show was staged for friends and family.

Like in the gym, the troupe was allowed inside only on the day of the performance.

All visitors had to pass through security screening, with some women forced to temporarily remove underwire bras to make it through the sensitive metal detector.

During the day, the troupe refined little things from past performances, such as having stage hands remove "bodies" instead of having the "dead" actors get up and walk off the stage following a particular scene.

The last-minute refinements contributed to a strong performance. This audience laughed at the intended places and reacted somberly to the dramatic points.

The closing performance brought another standing ovation.

Afterward, the prison environment melted away as inmates and family and friends co-mingled - hugging and shaking hands - in a receiving line.

For that moment, perhaps just half an hour, the scene could have been anywhere

The troupe no longer consisted of inmates - it consisted of actors and men.

"These are real people in here," said Nancy Henk, who came from Appleton with her husband, Ron, to see their son, Michael. "These are not throwaway people."

Months earlier, during rehearsals, that was a hope.

"We're human beings," said Jermaine Cameron, who played Edgar. "Some of us have made mistakes, but that doesn't make us less human."

The freedoms associated with the production didn't last long. Once the guests departed, the costumes were replaced with traditional prison greens and the guards stepped out from the sides of the room to take charge.

"Now we've got to (go to) SA -ÊShakespeare Anonymous," said Matthew Dickinson.

Over the loudspeaker, reality reverberated: "Attention all staff and inmates, it's 9:15. Time for the 9:15 standing count."

The actors returned to line, now as inmates.


Shailor doesn't know if he'll get a chance to run a Shakespeare course again.

That will be up to prison officials.

White hopes that chance will come again for what the opportunity


"Hope," White said. "That's what we're talking about. It's giving people hope."


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