DECATUR — Some people might say it was not how Shakespeare was meant to be done: the sword fights with foam knives, the kisses omitted as a matter of policy, the audience ushered in under guard.
But anyone who felt the energy at Decatur Correctional Center on Friday evening might just as easily say it was exactly how Shakespeare was meant to be done.
When the all-inmate cast of “Othello” finished its first show, the audience rose to its feet in a matter of seconds. It was a gratifying moment for director Alex Miller and an emotional one for the cast members, many of whom had never acted or read Shakespeare before.
“I was really hating myself when I got here. This is building my self-esteem up,” said LaBrea Milton, who delivered a charged performance as Othello, the self-made general who is driven by love and jealousy to murder his wife. “ … I’m somebody. I’m not worthless just because I’ve come to prison.”
Miller, an assistant professor of theater at Millikin University, was inspired by the “Shakespeare Behind Bars” program that began at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky and later was chronicled in a documentary film. He offered to start a similar program in Decatur and received a warm reception from Warden Shelith Hansbro and the prison’s administrative staff.
And so began the seven-month journey to the stage. Miller volunteered his time, along with assistant director Chloe Day, who is set to graduate from Millikin on Sunday. Both said the experience affected them personally.
“It’s kind of a weird sort of closeness you develop with an inmate because you can’t share personal information, you can’t share background,” Day said. “But with theater, you can’t be impersonal.”
Day said she plans to seek out a similar program after she moves to the Chicago area this year.
As they read the play and discussed it during practices, the actresses often found more than just fluid prose.
Rebecca Dixon said she instantly related to the villain Iago, whom she portrayed in the second half of the play.
“Oh yeah, the blame-shifting. He does a lot of blame-shifting,” she said. “I did a lot of that, and now I’m starting to learn to take the blame myself.”
As a mother of two daughters, Judith Merchant could relate to how her character, Brabantio, felt when his daughter Desdemona ran off with Othello.
Merchant, whom everybody knows as “Mudd,” also played Lodovico, whose lines are the last in the play. She said she took on the project in part because she wanted to prove to herself that she could.
“I’m ready to do it again — and again and again and again,” she said after the curtain had fallen.
She will get her wish today and Sunday, when the cast is scheduled to perform the show for their families, other inmates and some community members.
Other inmates also helped with various aspects of the production, including Holly Longfellow and Autumn Taylor, who constructed the set in about five days.
“They would be covered with paint,” Hansbro recalled with a smile. “But they had the idea and they wanted to keep going.”
During practices, the actresses would often discuss the dialogue in laymen’s terms with Miller and Day, providing opportunities to relate its context to real life. In one scene, mastermind Iago convinces unsuspecting Cassio to have “just one drink,” ultimately spurring Cassio into an embarrassing public brawl.
Miller told the women that they might face similar situations when they were released.
“Don’t fool yourself into thinking, ‘Oh, this time it’ll be different,’ ” he told them. “Nooo. Every time you do ‘Othello,’ it ends the same way.”
The actresses said they were grateful to Miller and Day for donating time and energy to stage the production. Several said the experience helped bolster their self-confidence and self-esteem.
“He changed my whole feeling about being here,” said Kyla Andersen, referring to Miller.
It’s been a standout experience for the director, too. Of all the productions in which Miller has participated, he said this was the one that made him the proudest.
“I’m just really, really grateful. I think all of my life experiences have prepared me for this,” he said, adding that he plans to keep the program going. “I think you know when you find part of your life’s work.”
Does he think the power of Shakespeare, or perhaps the magic of theater, will change the participants’ lives?
“I’m not naive enough to say they’re going to be a completely different human being. They have a long struggle ahead of them.
“But I think it’s given them ...” he paused thoughtfully. “... another friend. A friend that’s been around for 500 years. A friend that’s not going anywhere. And a friend that doesn’t judge them.”