All the Jail's a Stage

Missouri inmates are performing tales of murder, greed and insanity -- and learning how to leave their old lives behind

Act 1, Scene 1 The fierce morning rain has faded to a gentle patter as twenty inmates dressed in prison-issue gray pants and T-shirts file into the gym at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green. The men are serving time for assault, armed robbery, sex offenses and other violent crimes at this medium-security compound 85 miles northwest of St. Louis. Most of them have been locked up since they were young men.

The prisoners move into a circle to begin a warm-up exercise they have done the past eight months in preparation for a musical adaptation of Sophocles' Greek tragedy Oedipus at Colonus. In the play, Oedipus, the man who killed his father and married his mother, is forgiven by his community.

"I'd like to warm up, and then I'd like to run the sequence and scenes and songs that we did last week," announces Agnes Wilcox, a petite, gray-haired fireball who is wearing round Harry Potter glasses and a denim dress. Wilcox has spent the past fifteen years directing Prison Performing Arts, a nonprofit organization that teaches drama classes at five jails and prisons throughout the region.

Jing Jing Tsong
Chris Harris, who plays Oedipus, warms up with a 
theater game called "Zip Zap Zop."
Jennifer Silverberg
Chris Harris, who plays Oedipus, warms up with a theater game called "Zip Zap Zop."

Some of the men stand rigidly, but most are beginning to relax and smile as Wilcox explains to a newcomer the game of "Zip Zap Zop." Wilcox also calls the warm-up exercise the "job interview game," because it teaches inmates to look one another in the eye and think fast.

Chris Harris, a 40-year-old St. Charles native serving a life sentence for first-degree assault, claps his hands together and moves to face fellow inmate Bratt Jones. "Zip," he says as he looks Jones in the eye. "Zap," Jones says with a wide grin as he claps and turns to the man beside him.

Next Wilcox ups the ante with a new game called "Ka-ching," an exercise that helps the inmates take cues from one another. A loud calm settles over the room as these hard-core convicts watch one another intensely, waiting to see who will send a clap in their direction and who will change the direction of the game by yelling "Ka-ching!" When someone screws up, they all laugh like little boys.

"Now I want you to all close your eyes," Wilcox says. She instructs the men to take a deep breath, open their mouths and hum. "Don't try to change the tone. Let it change naturally."

For nearly two minutes, their voices vibrate together and fill the prison gym -- a mournful tone that rises and falls in a graceful arc. "Beautiful," she sighs when their music fades.

Wilcox believes these exercises, along with reading literature, learning lines, rehearsing with other inmates and performing for other prisoners, will change the lives of these men. The Prison Performing Arts program, she contends, improves the self-esteem, literacy, communication skills and behavior of the prisoners who participate.

"Most inmates will return to society," Wilcox says. "The question is, how do you want them back?"

Megan McCarthy, a St. Louis social-work consultant, has begun to study what positive results might be achieved from theatrical training in a prison setting. The subject has never been thoroughly examined before, but research indicates that children -- especially those with behavioral and learning problems -- thrive in an environment where acting is part of the curriculum.

Chris Harris is a believer. The actor who plays Oedipus says Wilcox's direction has helped him to see his own life through new eyes: "Agnes is like, 'Yes, this is kind of deep. Yes, you will have college professors who will come in and lecture you. Yes, I expect papers, I expect you to memorize and to be on time, but these are things you can do.'

"It's like she already knows that you can do this. And given the chance, you realize that you could have done it all along. It makes a person reflect -- what if I had made different choices?"

Act I, Scene IIPhotographs of babies from an Anne Geddes calendar are taped to the white walls of the activity room at the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia. For many of these women, who have been convicted of everything from selling drugs to carjacking to murder, the pictures are reminders of the children they left behind when they came to this minimum- to maximum-security prison 100 miles northwest of St. Louis. The photos of babies surround a black-and-white clock.

Twenty inmates are gathered for rehearsal around Agnes Wilcox, "a tiny bundle of energy and ideas," as one prisoner describes her. They're all wearing prison-issued gray pants. Nearly everyone has their hair styled. No one wears much makeup, but a few have pink lip gloss on. Today they are practicing scenes from the first act of Macbeth, Shakespeare's tale of greed, murder and insanity. They will perform it for their fellow inmates next month.

"We need our witches," Wilcox calls out.

The witches -- Patty Prewitt, Sherri Moore and Inez McClendon -- skip to the center of the room and dance around a red plastic chair as they call out in unison: "The Weird Sisters, hand in hand/Posters of the sea and land/Thus do go about, about/Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine/And thrice again, to make up nine/Peace! The charm's wound up."

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