Whether this is an intentional prejudice, a subconscious judgment call, or merely a fluke coincidence cannot be definitely decided. If subconscious, which I tend to believe, it reveals the depth of our societal bias against the incarcerated. The attitude becomes something of a tidy symbol of our desire to neglect them altogether, to deny them a participatory voice in the culture as well as in the political chorus, as part of our penalizing them for their criminality. We segregate them unto themselves and their own kind, and extend this segregation to encompass even their artistic expression. When they decide to show some receptiveness to our cultural and social values, indicated by their work with an accepted playtext from the professional theatre, then our attention tends to perk up. It suggests a desire to conform to the mainstream, showing sufficient contrition, and a willingness to repent and reform, which assures us that our correctional system does in fact work. To what modest extent prison-theatre is accepted, it is only on these terms. Even the one outstanding example of an original play that did receive considerable media attention, Rehabilitation Through the Arts’ 2002 production of Stratford’s Decision, cowritten by incarcerated playwrights David Wayne Britton and Winston Ishon Williams, was a parody of Shakespearean drama. This production brought together the best of both worlds in the public’s mind: it suggested an effort to conform by imitation.
Rehabilitation Through the Arts and Shakespeare Behind Bars
Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) and Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) are two of the most important companies working as producing repertory theatres within the prison community today. They also nicely typify the standard: RTA producing alternately original and established plays, and SBB working exclusively with their namesake’s corpus. A cursory discussion of these two companies should serve to introduce the reader with the wide range of application of theatre in prison.