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'King Lear' in Prison: The players
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'King Lear' in Prison: The players

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Ken Spears Ken Spears was tricked into joining the theater troupe - not an easy thing to do to a long-time inmate.

Spears, with his long, white hair commonly tied back and a few tattoos on his arms, thought he was heading to the prison library to get help on a legal issue from fellow inmate William White.

Instead, the library had been converted into the rehearsal site for the future production of "King Lear." White was the assistant director.

Spears, who said he was serving time for vehicular homicide, was a bit angry, but that faded as he watched the group of men interact.

In a prison environment where people congregate in terms of age and race - where there was a constant struggle among the "alpha" males - here was a diverse group working together.

"I saw guys helping each other to deliver a single line," Spears said.

"It hooked me," he said. "I've been 18 years locked up and all of it has been negative. This was the first positive energy."

As for that legal help he initially thought he was getting? "We have never talked about my case," Spears said.

Travail Walls

Travail Walls played the villain, and the former Kenosha resident admitted it wasn't hard to draw inspiration from his past.

Walls played Edmund, who frames his brother for attempting to murder their father - all in a scheme so Edmund can inherit his father's land and wealth.

"I used to be like that, plotting and planning and scheming like that," said Walls, sporting a long, pointed goatee.

In 2000, Walls was sentenced to 10 years for armed robbery.

But just as theater provides a forum to consider how to better oneself, Walls has been trying to put his time behind bars to good use.

He learned Arabic in prison and recommitted himself to Islam. He studies philosophy, such as the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. He also completed a culinary arts program and has begun work as an apprentice, helping prepare meals for prison staff.

Thoughts of someday reuniting with his son - who is now 8 and doesn't have any contact with his father - keep him going, he said.

The opening performance was special to Walls.

"That's my birthday present to me," said Walls, who turned 29 on April 25.

David "Fly" Williams David Williams - who goes by the name Fly - was originally going to play Lear.

The eccentric inmate, who vied for attention during Journal Times visits, was challenged for the role early in the troupe's formation.

A "Lear-off" was held and Williams was forced into the role of the Earl of Kent, a counselor at King Lear's court who is banished for being harshly honest with Lear. Although the "Lear-off" winner left the theater group a few weeks later for a pre-release program, Williams did not ascend to the title role. The cast decided Director Jonathan Shailor should take the part instead.

Williams seemed to take the decision in stride, pouring himself into playing Kent.

During a break in a scene where Kent is retrained in stocks, Williams joked: "Story of my life, I've been stocked again."

The comment would prove both telling and somewhat prophetic.

Five weeks before the production was to be staged, Williams was cited for a violation of rules. Prison officials declined to be specific, but it was enough that he was off the cast.

Williams was able to attend the second performance in the audience. Afterward, he congratulated the cast and shed a few tears.

Jonathan Shailor

Work in a prison environment might be considered a bit dangerous, but Jonathan Shailor said he felt safer behind the walls of the Racine Correctional Institution - with its many guards and constant surveillance - than some places outside of prison.

Shailor is chair of the Department of Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. For the past decade he also taught inmate-tailored communication courses at RCI.

He was inspired to propose a Shakespeare course, culminating in three performances, based on similar well-documented efforts in two Kentucky prisons.

What was his biggest surprise in doing Shakespeare in prison? "I really didn't expect so much positive attention Š both within the institution and outside," Shailor said.

The performances drew media attention from several newspapers, including the New York Times, and television coverage from a Milwaukee station.

Shailor said he also was surprised by a special honor at the cast party, the final gathering of the troupe in early May.

"They've made me an honorary convict," Shailor said.

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