Reimagining Dante:
Theatre and Transformation Behind Bars

by

Ron Jenkins

Dante’s just like us. I relate. He’s trying to make a change, just like us. And he takes chances, does what he has to do. That’s what we’ll have to do too.

Everything we are is the result of what we have thought.

I see Dante and he is learning about making transitions, learning that change is hard. But, it is possible. As you see from Dante, you can go from one lifestyle to another. It’s hard, but we can do it. That’s what Dante showed me.

What I liked the most was that he had a hell of an imagination.

There’s a section at the beginning that talks about, 'Halfway through the course of my pathetic life I woke up and I found myself in a stupor.' And I read that and it jumped out to me, because when he says 'woke up' I took that in the sense of him becoming conscious. It’s me coming to the realization that I’m coming out of that darkness, that mental death, that sleeping state.

Only a fool forgets lessons learned through pain and suffering.

We may never reach perfection, but our goal in life is to always strive and to do the right thing, and continue to climb and go up that ladder until we are basically our best selves, and we can look in the mirror and be satisfied with who we are. You can go down any road you choose, but you still have to face yourself.

You gotta love the hell you go through to come out right.

—incarcerated performers responding to Dante’s Divine Comedy

Incarcerated individuals identify with Dante for the same reasons everyone does who takes the time to read The Divine Comedy. Dante depicts himself as someone trying to find a way out of hell and into paradise. It is a personal journey that most people can relate to, but spending time in prison makes the trip more urgent.

For several years I have been working on prison theatre projects that begin with a reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy and end with a performance weaving together fragments of Dante’s text and new writings by incarcerated men and women inspired by Dante. These workshops were held in prisons in New York, Connecticut, Italy and Indonesia, sometimes with help from my students in Wesleyan University’s Service Learning Program. Most recently I have begun Dante prison theatre workshops with students from the Yale Divinity School’s Institute of Sacred Music.

The informal performances resulting from this work often focus on the theme of transformation. The men and women who volunteer to work on the Dante project are in the process of trying to rehabilitate themselves, and they identify with Dante, the writer and the character in his own poem, as someone who is trying to change his life. Like Dante they have experienced the “dark forest” of fear and misfortune described in the opening canto of Inferno and are eager to follow him on a journey out of hell, through purgatory, to a place beyond prison that would fit their description of paradise. Dante chooses Virgil as his guide, and they each choose their own guides: Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Houdini, Mike Tyson, The Virgin Mary, Michael Jackson, Malcom X, and the Greek Goddess Athena, among others. Learning that Dante was exiled from his home in Florence and condemned to death if he should ever return, the men and women in prison, separated from their families for years, empathize with his exile.

Actors trying to make their performances more compelling are always taught to ‘raise the stakes.’ Actors in prison are by definition living in conditions where the stakes could not be higher. Their lives, dignity, and family relationships are constantly at risk. Consequently their interpretations of Dante are illuminating in ways that would not occur to performers in other settings. Every time I collaborate with incarcerated performers on The Divine Comedy I discover something about the poem that never occurred to me before. Working with formerly incarcerated individuals is equally revelatory. In Italy I read the last canto of The Inferno with a man named Luigi who has spent nineteen years in prison for armed robbery. Although like all Italians Luigi had studied a bit of Dante in school, he did not remember much about The Divine Comedy, but when I talked to him about the last lines of The Inferno describing Dante and Virgil as they emerge from hell to see the stars, he understood deeply. It reminded him of how much he had missed seeing the night sky when he was in prison. “I was in a cell that faced a wall with no view of the sky,” he recalled. “They let me out every day for an hour of exercise, but it was daytime, and that’s not the same. One night I was transferred to another prison. On the way to the van I looked up and saw the stars for the first time in years, and… it felt like I was being reborn.” It took a long time for Luigi to finish the last sentence of his story, because he was almost in tears as he recalled the moment. No matter how many times one has read The Inferno listening to the last lines of the poem spoken by a formerly incarcerated septuagenarian with a dagger tattoo gives the words a resonance they’ve never had before. “E quindi uscimo a riveder le stelle.” “And then we emerged to see again the stars.”

Dante and Transformation

Incarcerated performers and spectators had no trouble identifying with Dante as an individual. “Dante is us,” said one audience member with great pride before walking out into the prison yard after a performance. “For the rest of the day, I’m going to be Dante.” It was as if Dante were a newly discovered superhero with the power to overcome all obstacles. Little distinction was made between Dante the writer who had been exiled from his home in Florence and Dante the character who traveled from Hell to Heaven with Virgil as his guide. Both Dantes suffered severe hardships and were trying to make the best of bad situations. That was enough to win the respect of the men and women in prison who were also trying to overcome severe hardships.

Dante was a master of self-transformation and that is a skill of value to the incarcerated performers, who were not only interested in transforming themselves into the characters they played in their adaptations of Dante’s poem, but were also interested in transforming themselves into people who would be respected in the world outside of prison. Dante the writer had been convicted of crimes and sent into exile, but he had used his writing to redefine himself as an artist remembered for his poetry, not for his conviction. Dante, the character in the poem, emerged from hell unscathed, continued on to heaven, and went home to tell the world about his journey. These collective accomplishments earned Dante credibility and respect among his incarcerated readers, who also aspired to transcend the stigmatizing label of “convict,” and make their way from hellish hardships to a better place. It also earned Dante their sincere concern. Few readers of the poem ask themselves what will happen to Dante when he returns from Paradise to the mortal world, but people in prison asked that question, knowing that no one goes home from a trip like than unchanged. “You are never the same when you leave,” observed one performer, who knew from experience how prison could transform a person, and wondered how a trip to hell and back would have changed Dante.

After a few months reading, re-imagining, and performing Dante’s epic poem one performer began noticing multiple levels of self-transformation:

I mean, even my handwriting is different now. See, I’m spacing my words apart now, like the way you do, so it’s easier to read. See. And in letters to my mom and dad, I don’t know, it’s just different. I tell them stuff different now. And I don’t mess around with people anymore. I used to get in fights a lot, everybody wants to fight you when you’re big like me, but I just got muscle, I just like to stay in shape, that don’t mean I want to fight anybody. So now I just go to the gym and work out and eat and go back to my room, and I don’t make trouble with nobody because I just got to be good and get out of here, I gotta be good now, because I have dreams now. I want to go to college and be around educated people and be an architect. I already got a plan. When I get out of here I’m going to move in with my mom. Away from all that bad stuff. I’m going to college and get out of here.

In addition to reading Dante’s poem as a springboard for their own individual transformations, one group of incarcerated performers re-imagined the poem as a series of motivational speeches for teenagers that might convince them to stay in school and not make the mistakes that would lead to drug addiction, imprisonment or death. Lines from The Divine Comedy triggered the performers to give short inspirational speeches based on their own life experiences. The scenario was enacted as if it were being performed for a school auditorium full of impressionable teenagers.

Beginning on a comic note the performers used a few lines from Dante’s original poem to depict the school principal’s efforts to control the students as equivalent to the three-headed demon dog Cerberus trying to maintain order in hell.

His eyes blaze scarlet, his beard is greasy and black; he has a huge belly and sharp talons for clawing, skinning, and quartering the spirits… Cerberus howls so thunderously that the souls wished they were deaf.

The principal announced the arrival of the recently incarcerated visitors whose purpose was to describe “what it’s like to be in prison and what they wish they knew when they were your age.” The performers imagined themselves as motivational speakers and talked directly to the audience of incarcerated spectators as if they were the teenagers in the school auditorium. Their advice was peppered with quotes from Dante that matched the points they were trying to make. Four performers alternated, speaking a few sentences each, and creating a collage that mixed their life experiences with inspirational advice, and fragments of poetry. They began with the first lines of the poem and, like Dante, engaged the audience by emphasizing that they were going to talk about “the dark forest” in “our life’s journey” in terms that could save them from a path “not much less bitter than death.” “There is no life in prison or if you’re dead in a graveyard,” announced one performer. “If you’re 12-18, going into Junior High School or High School, you’re gonna want to listen.”

The speakers were blunt in their warnings of what could happen if those who strayed from “the straight road” did not change their ways. Quoting Dante’s line about a prophecy of doom, “I had an evil dream that tore away the veil of the future” (33.25), one of the speakers predicted that those who feared change and returned full circle to their old ways would not survive: “It’s doing a 360. The people that try and do a 360 they always get killed. Like their past comes back to haunt them and they get killed.”

For some performers expressing the need to change is the first step towards actual transformation, but the prison environment inhibits self-expression of any kind, and many individuals identified with the characters in Canto 33 of The Inferno whose tear ducts had been frozen, denying them the release of expressing their emotions.

their anguish, blocked by a barrier in the eye
turns back inside, increasing their pain.
(33.95-96)

One performer was inspired by this passage to write a song in Spanish, expressing the need to “tear out” the pain that remained buried inside.

Son marcas, Senor, que lleve in mi/ Trato de arranciarlas, olvidar las/ pero ellas siguen
Nadie comprende mi situacion. Nadie comprende mi situacion. Por essos vengo ante ti, Senor.
There are scars, Lord, that I carry inside me./ I tried to tear them out, forget them/ but they would not let go./
Nobody understands my situation. Nobody understands my situation. That is why I come before you, Oh Lord.

Another identified the blockage of emotion with patterns of pride that were difficult to overcome: “The old me was filled with negative patterns. I was the Inferno. I was the King of Fear, Anger, and an Unforgiving Heart. I had some disease. The root of my disease was Pride. I thought I was so strong and so powerful when I had all my possessions, my PMS, Power, Money, Sex. I was all-important, all-powerful.”

One performer attributed an initial reluctance to participate in the group to the fear of self-expression. “You know, I came up with all these excuses, all the time, not to do the work. None of these people know me, why do they care, how can I trust them… but then I realized that everybody’s got problems, and everyone can relate. For the first time, I realized that. And talking about these issues, well, I had so much built up in me that I needed to get it out. If I hadn’t, I would still be bitter. Change comes from within, I learnt that here, because I feel different.”

These performers’ experiences recall Dante describing the gradual release of a hardened soul as something similar to the opening of a flower in the light of the sun, “Like tiny flowers in the frozen night, bent over and closed tight, straighten on their stems and open themselves to the sun’s whitening light; so did I in my weariness feel a great courage surge to my heart…”

Hearing these versions of Dante’s poetry performed behind bars can be transformative, both for those who are incarcerated and those who are not. In the words of one performer the experience “helps us to evolve in an environment where it is much easier to devolve.” The commitment of these individuals to change their lives might move those who are not incarcerated to recall another line from Dante: “Deep sorrow struck me when I understood, because then I knew that people of great value were suspended in that limbo” (4.43-5).

Notes

This article was written in residence at the Rockefeller Foundation Research Center in Bellagio, Italy. Special thanks to the staff and residents of the York Correctional Institute, Gates Correctional Institute, and Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Facility in Connecticut, The Sing-Sing Correctional Facility in New York, and the Kerobokan Prison in Indonesia. Translations of Dante are by the author.

 


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