The Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Oldham County is home to about 1100 felons and one unusual theatre company. It’s an all-inmate ensemble called Shakespeare Behind Bars. For sixteen years, the group has staged full productions of plays like Hamlet and Macbeth and Julius Casear. Each year, they do a series of performances, some for other inmates and some for the public.
This year, they’re taking on a new challenge. Shakespeare Behind Bars has recently begun rehearsing its next production: Romeo and Juliet. One of the troupe’s first challenges: Casting.
“As far as personality traits, the feminine is not really embraced,” Hal Cobb says with a laugh. Cobb is a founding member of Shakespeare Behind Bars. He’s played numerous parts over the years. He’s serving a life sentence for murder. He’s also openly gay. “Many people try to project an ultra macho image just to survive in this place and to let down that wall can leave somebody feeling pretty vulnerable,” he says.
Enter inmate number 166200 – Romeo.
O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head
As is a winged messenger of heaven
James Prichard asked to play Romeo because he identifies with the character. “I’ve been in love, I’ve lost love. I’ve taken a life,” he says. “There’s a lot of qualities that Romeo goes through that I’ve been through.”
So what about Juliet? What prison inmate is going to step forward to take on what may be the most iconic female role in all of literature? His name is Derald Weeks: “I’ve got Aryan Brotherhood tattooed on my stomach. I got SWP with some lightning bolts on my chest. It stands for Supreme White Power. You get them for committing violent acts.”
Weeks is also serving a life sentence for murder. He says for a long time he was angry and wanted to impress or intimidate the people around him. “Then one day it came into my head, what do I care what these people think when I can’t stand the sight of myself?”
Weeks’ epiphany eventually led him to join Shakespeare Behind Bars. (Cobb and Prichard are among his friends in the group.) Weeks says he was drawn to the character of Juliet because he didn’t identify with her.
“When I first got locked up, I was about 16 years old, I got out for less than year. And I’ve been back since 20 and I’m 33 now. So there’s lots of feelings expressed in that play that I never felt. So this is my opportunity to try to get that and see what happens with that feeling.”
Ron Brown is another member of Shakespeare Behind Bars. In Romeo and Juliet. Brown plays Juliet’s confidant, Friar Lawrence. Brown and Weeks have become friends, which is somewhat of a testament to Weeks’ transformation, since Brown is African American.
“When I look at Derald,” Brown says, “I’ve watched him physically and mentally commit to a role I would never dreamed he would have picked. And what you realize is that it’s not about a female, it’s about exploring a human being. And I’m really proud of him.”
Matt Wallace is Shakespeare Behind Bars’ artistic director. He’s not an inmate, but a theatre professional who chooses and directs the plays. He says traditional theatre companies try to create an experience for the audience. Shakespeare Behind Bars tries to create an experience for the actors. “By using the text, by putting themselves in the shoes of these characters, they’re becoming more empathetic, more responsible, better human beings and ultimately, better neighbors.”
According the Justice Department, about 95 percent of inmates housed in state prisons like Luther Luckett will one day go free.
As the members of Shakespeare Behind Bars rehearse their lines their focus is on preparing to present Romeo and Juliet in the spring. But at the same time, they’re also preparing for something beyond scene numbers and monologues and iambic pentameter. They’re preparing for the performance of their lives.
Derald Weeks sits in the middle of a circle of his fellow actors and inmates and begins reading his lines:
Wherefore are thou Romeo?…
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet