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

The other women in the cast crack up as they watch the witches cackling gleefully.

The first time the women read Macbeth, no one understood a word of it, recalls Prewitt. "We were all looking at each other like, 'What the heck are we doing here?'"

But after reading the play dozens of times, watching the movie, breaking it down line-by-line and writing essays about it -- "Now we see that Shakespeare was a genius," Prewitt proclaims.

Agnes Wilcox (top) and Stan Schell
Jennifer Silverberg
Agnes Wilcox (top) and Stan Schell
Toni Sullivan (top) and Inez McClendon
Jennifer Silverberg
Toni Sullivan (top) and Inez McClendon

The witches, she explains, sense Macbeth's hunger for power that eventually leads him to murder the king. "Macbeth is one of these meth-lab dealer kind of guys that is always looking for a quick way to get to the top," explains Prewitt, who speaks with a twang. She smiles constantly and claims she is innocent of the murder of her husband at their home near Kansas City twenty years ago.

The 55-year-old mother of five sees herself as a surrogate mom to many of the younger women here. "Most women who come to prison come because of some man with some stupid plan, like Macbeth and his plan," Prewitt says with a laugh. "If they learn life lessons from [reading Macbeth], maybe they won't make those errors in judgment again. Maybe they'll have more self-esteem and won't be led astray."

When Toni Sullivan read the play, she came to identify with Lady Macbeth, the character she now portrays. "I kind of related to where she was coming from -- she wanted so much for herself and Macbeth," says the 25-year-old redhead who has the face and grace of a model -- along with a rap sheet for first-degree assault. "I understood how she could just snap. They put those thoughts in her head, that she could have so much more, and her whole thought process just twisted to something evil."

The St. Louis native continues, "For me, I had low self-esteem, so I think people can get you to do things that you know is wrong. People who love themselves just don't end up in situations where they go to prison."

Sullivan reviews her lines one last time before heading to the center of the room. She opens a letter, throws the envelope to the floor and reads aloud a message from Macbeth. Her blue eyes flash with ambition as she reads of her husband's encounter with the prophetic witches: "Whiles I stood rapt in the wonder of it came missives from the King, who all-hailed me 'Thane of Cawdor,' by which title, before, these Weird Sisters saluted me, and referred me to the coming on of time with 'Hail, king that shalt be!'"

Janiece Moore, who plays Macbeth, fixes an out-of-place hair for her friend and then walks to the center of the room, where the plot to kill the king thickens. "Macbeth wanted to kill the king, but he didn't have the gumption," explains the 27-year-old St. Louisan who is serving a 25-year sentence for first-degree assault. "Lady Macbeth was pressuring him. That's what brought me here -- peer pressure. That's what I identify with the most."

Moore was just 21, the mother of two young children and a member of the notorious Gangster Disciples, when she was convicted. "I went through a period where I felt like it was their fault I was here. It was still my choice to be with the people I was with -- to be in a gang," she explains. "I felt like I had to change. When you do things that are bad, your conscience eats you up. Macbeth, he realized it too late. He was already crazy."

Diane Davison, the activities coordinator at Vandalia, looks on as Dana Ruff, the actress who plays the king, delivers her lines perfectly.

"Dana wouldn't even look you in the eye to talk to you," Davison says. "For her to look people in the eye and stand up in front of others, that's a milestone for her."

Davison says the acting program has taught all these women confidence. "It's taught them to be creative," she says. "They'll need that in the real world."

Act I, Scene III

Agnes Wilcox first saw the inside of a prison when she was a teenager. Her mother, who served on the Wisconsin governor's board of health and human services, took her daughter with her on a tour of Taycheedah Correctional Institution, the state women's prison.

"I couldn't see any difference from the women in Taycheedah and me," Wilcox remembers. "I learned early that inmates are just like me."

In 1985 Wilcox again found herself behind bars, this time performing a play at the St. Louis city jail about women getting out of prison. Wilcox joined TNT, a local drama troupe, shortly after moving here from New York City, where she worked with film director Louis Malle and playwright John Guare. She took a teaching job at Webster University.

The first performance by TNT at the city jail would lead to the birth of Prison Performing Arts, which today sponsors drama classes and monthly performances of music, theater and dance at the city jail, the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center and state prisons in Vandalia, Bowling Green and Pacific. Private grants and donations fund the program's $120,000 budget, which pays performers and the salaries of Wilcox, another full-time staffer and several part-time teachers.

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