Jose Gonzales is an actor participating in Freehold's Engaged Theatre program. Jose went to the Washington Correctional Center for Men along with several of his fellow actors and performed several scenes from King Lear and participated in a post-scene workshop with the men. Here is his experience.
Walking into a prison is always unnerving. You have your sensors on full alert, not knowing exactly how to behave except with consideration and caution. You worry the guards are going to turn your group away, you worry that there will be no people in the audience, you worry that you’ll see something that may break your heart.
Once we get into the ‘yard’ I start to see the offenders, dressed in faded out cream colored heavy duty pants, shirts, and over shirts - all cream colored. They’re walking from one area to another, checking us out, wondering who we are. I sense an excitement from them. They’re not used to larger groups coming into their space.
Inside the chapel (it’s just a regular room that looks very similar to many elementary school classrooms) we perform a small section of King Lear. There is a sizable group there, ranging in age from young 20’s to 70’s. They are interested, working at deciphering this strange language of Shakespeare that many of them have never heard before. There are divides in prison, most notably racial. They sit separated by color - whites on one side, blacks on the other. No questions, no comments - that’s just the way it is.
After we perform, we start doing theater and writing exercises with them. This is where they begin to shine. They become engaged, excited, willing to participate. We ask them to partner up with someone they don’t know that well. There is a slight awkward pause - I get the feeling that some of them never even talk to one another. They break through the awkwardness and partner up. After several improv exercises they get loosened up and you can feel the energy in the room. It’s a good energy, a feeling of letting go, a feeling of freedom.
Then we begin the writing exercise. Daemond Arrindell, a Spoken Word artist and Freehold Associate Partner and Faculty Member, leads us, and hands out pens and papers to all. He asks us to write: “Under my shirt is my skin, under my skin is my heart, under my heart is...” We are asked to finish this sentence and then to continue writing, always delving deeper into the exercise. If we run out of things to write, keep your pen to the paper and write “I can’t think of anything to write”, until something sparks. The idea is to keep writing all the time. 15 silent minutes later we’re asked to put down our pens. Again, there is energy in the room - it feels sacred but not pretentious or put on. It’s a vulnerable energy.
One by one, the men are brave enough to share what they wrote. Much of it is heartbreaking and so moving. They write of their personal struggles, of letting down their moms, of “looking up at the sky. One day it’s blue. Another time it’s full of clouds. Why is that?” They write of their children and how much they miss them, of getting on a better track. They get personal, and everybody listens and supports. I feel like we’ve broken through. Like we’ve given them a chance to say something they might never get to say, except in their heads. I’m not sure if our Lear group should share our writings, but the guys won’t have any of that. They want to hear what we wrote, and treat us with the same respect and dignity they gave each other in that room.
8:15pm comes and it’s time to go. We shake hands with the guys, and they tell us how much they enjoyed it, how much it means to have something like this, here, where they never get anything like this coming through. They all help us put the room back in order, some hanging around because they don’t want it to end. As we’re walking back to the gatehouse, I’m joined by Hakim, one of my partners in the exercises. He’s a lovely man, brimming with enthusiasm, telling me about his days of wanting be an actor, about his niece who wants to do theatre and how he encourages her. About how glad he is we came, how much fun it was. Before we get to the gatehouse, he gives me a handshake, we look each other in the eye, and we say goodbye. As the gate clicks open, and we file into the parking lot, I can’t seem to get Hakim’s smile out of my mind.
Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio will be bringing our Engaged Theatre Summer Tour production of King Lear this July to our unique partner organizations including those at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, the Monroe Correctional Center for Men, Echo Glen Children's Center, a hospital and other selected venues as well as to the general public.