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In 'Hip Hop Hamlet,' women prisoners express their humanity: 'I didn't feel like I was incarcerated'

The St. Louis nonprofit Prison Performing Arts has been putting on plays with incarcerated people for 19 years. Here, two women at the penitentiary in Vandalia, Missouri rehearse a scene from "Hip Hop Hamlet." 10/11/18
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis nonprofit Prison Performing Arts has been putting on plays with incarcerated people for 19 years. Here, Brittany Curry and Danielle Jones-Mack rehearse at the penitentiary in Vandalia, Missouri.

It’s opening night for “Hip Hop Hamlet” and more than 200 women dressed in baggy, khaki-colored clothes have packed into the gymnasium at the women’s penitentiary in Vandalia, Missouri. They’re eager to watch fellow members of the prison population perform a beat-filled, rap adaptation of the Shakespeare text.

Shakespeare scholars say his work offers ways to get in touch with what makes a person fully human. For the women participating in this show, that plays out at a very basic level.

When they’re rehearsing or performing with the Prison Performing Arts program, a St. Louis-based nonprofit, they’re allowed to have some forms of basic human contact that aren’t allowed out in the prison yard or in the dorms.

“We get to be closer to each other,” said Autumn Smith, 32, who plays Hamlet. She’s there serving time for  convictions stemming from a drunken driving accident, including involuntary manslaughter.

“Hugging, of course, isn’t something we’re supposed to do," Smith said. "We’re supposed to have no hands-on contact with anybody. But in here we get to do that. We get to have that moment. It’s something that women, or really, people in general need. We need that.”

Autumn Smith (left) and Katherine Leemon, who play Hamlet and Laertes, rehearse a scene from "Hip Hop Hamlet." 10/12/18
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St.Louis Public Radio

From existential ruminations to Jerry Springer

“Hip Hop Hamlet” was the last play created by Prison Performing Arts’ founding artistic director, the late Agnes Wilcox, before she retired in 2016. It was written in collaboration between Chicago-based theater-makers Q Brothers and men incarcerated at the prison in Bowling Green, Missouri.

The production by the women at Vandalia, about 100 miles northwest of St.Louis,  is the second time anyone has performed it. Christopher Limber, who took over the nonprofit’s artistic reins after Wilcox retired, directed the show.

Director Christopher Limber took over the artistic reigns of Prison Performing Arts after the late Agnes Wilcox retired. To his right is sound engineer Erica Nowden. 10/12/18
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio

It has comic moments, including a re-imagining of the crucial play-within-a-play sequence as an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show.”

But it still engages directly with the themes at the heart of the play. In an ensemble piece at the end, the cast sings: “Is revenge really worth it? Who can you trust? At the end of the day are we just cosmic dust?”

“Hip Hop Hamlet” includes singing, choreography and stage combat — all out of bounds in most situations at the prison.

“We can’t dance on the walk or on the yard,” said Laura Hulsey, 26, who plays Ophelia. “We can’t just walk in the cafeteria and just sing whenever we want, you know what I mean? We’re told what to do constantly, all day, every single day. So this is our free zone.”

Amy Sherrill (left) and Laura Hulsey play Polonius and Ophelia. Hulsey said her work with Prison Performing Arts gives her a chance to have some of the basic human contact that would be out of bounds in other contexts at the prison.  10/12/18
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio

Hulsey will complete her five-year sentence for first-degree assault just a few weeks after the show. She and Smith have grown close while imprisoned, and their rapport carries over onstage as Hamlet and Ophelia. Hulsey pointed to one moment in the production, when the cast needed to find a way for Hamlet to interrupt a bunch of commotion.

She’d been having a particularly bad day, and suggested that Smith just let out a big scream. Limber liked the idea, they tried it, and it worked.

When that moment came up in the performance for fellow prisoners, Smith uncorked a piercing yell. An audience member spontaneously said out loud: “That must’ve felt good.”

Women at the prison in Vandalia, Missouri rehearse a scene from "Hip Hop Hamlet." 10/12/18
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St.Louis Public Radio

"You get to be your true self"

Even the less dramatic moments provide a measure of catharsis for participants.

“There’s moments when you get to be your true self here in the practice and you can’t be that on the dorm because you sort of always have to have your guard up,” said Katherine Leemon, 34, who plays a fierce Laertes onstage but peppers her conversation with laughter. She was convicted of first-degree robbery and is due to get out of prison in 2021.

Evon Edmonds-Childs (left) and Autumn Smith rehearse a scene as Horatio and Hamlet. When they perform for the prison population a few days later, their audience is enthusiastic. 10/12/18
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio

“But here, PPA tries to make it like a little family unit where you can be yourself, where you can show up and it can be an open, safe place for everybody to create.”

Smith said her experience has given her a big self-esteem boost to take with her when she completes her sentence.

“Knowing I’m capable of something like this, I feel like I can do anything,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter that I’m a felon. I can do whatever I want and it’s possible.”

Director Christopher Limber watches as the cast rehearses a dance number. 10/12/18
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio

Back to a more usual prison mode

When the women perform for the prison population, the audience watches with enthusiasm, frequently breaking in with laughter and applause. In a question-and-answer session right after, several women stand up to thank the cast and crew for inspiring them. One prisoner says she has trouble laughing at things these days, but the show put a smile on her face.

Afterward, the Prison Performing Arts participants change out of their costumes and break down the cardboard set pieces as the audience exits the gym. It’s time for everyone to shift back into a more regular prison mode. One woman rushes up to Hulsey and gives her a congratulatory hug.

A prison staffer sees this, and issues a two-word command:

“No contact.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin

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