Last session’s ensemble suggested that we watch the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary very early in this session, so that’s what we did tonight. This is at least the tenth time I’ve seen the film, and it never fails to move and inspire me. This proved to be true for our ensemble as well.
The past four times I’ve viewed the film with an SIP ensemble (membership has varied since 2012), the focus of our discussion afterward has been predominantly about the group’s mechanics – how they retain members, how often they meet, the differences between working with men and women, the willingness of the men in the film to go all out for their roles. But tonight’s discussion was very different.
When the film was over, I asked the group if anyone would like to share her thoughts. The first response was from a returning member who said, “Well, that’s never easy to watch.” When we asked her why, she responded, “Because… I’m a criminal. It’s just not easy to watch.” She said that people think things about her because of her offense, but they don’t know the whole story.
Another woman said, “Until I got in trouble and came to prison, I used to say things, too. Now I’ve learned that everything is not black and white.” We talked about how the way we judge and are judged is often based on very little information – we make assumptions based on the little we know and run with them. “I’m afraid of how I’m perceived by other people,” said one woman.
“It’s beautiful to see how the men have so much fun with this program,” said another woman. “There are so few opportunities for true rehabilitation in prison. This is one. They found something to fulfill their lives – even the ones serving life sentences. It was beautiful.”
One woman shared how impressed she was by the level of empathy and support the men had for each other. Several of the men in the film share what their offenses were, and she asked if the entire group knew about one crime in particular. I responded (having heard this information from Curt Tofteland) that they did. “Wow,” she said. That crime resonated for her due to her own experience, and she talked about how conflicted she felt that, on the one hand, everyone has the right to seek to do better – to attain some sort of redemption, as the man in the film says – but she doesn’t know if she personally could see past the crime and have empathy for him, no matter how much she wants to.
Another woman brought up how interesting it was to see Red learn about himself and his life through playing Miranda. We talked about how this is one of the key reasons that we work with Shakespeare, and that it is likely to happen for a number (if not all) of us as well.
The discussion was open, honest, and emotional. Several of the women shed tears as we talked. It was an honor to be a part of such a frank conversation about issues that can be difficult to articulate, let alone to openly discuss in a very new group setting. We have had such discussions before in SIP, but it has always taken much longer for the ensemble to be so open to each other. It makes me even more excited to continue the process with this ensemble.
Tonight during check-in, we discussed the challenge of people needing to leave early fairly often to go to work or to take medication. We decided that we’ll switch up the format of our meetings to accommodate that as best we can – sometimes we’ll begin with games and end with Shakespeare, and sometimes we’ll do the opposite. Since last Friday was games-first, we began tonight with Shakespeare and had such interesting conversation about it that we never got to the games!
We continued our text work by reading Act I Scene II aloud. “I’d be pissed if I were Brabantio,” said one woman. We talked about this father’s unwillingness to see his daughter’s culpability in her “crime” – she’s gone, so it must be that Othello put spells on her. We also discussed how very much in control Othello is in this scene, and what an important person he obviously is – everyone is looking for him and everyone except Brabantio treats him with a lot of respect. We also talked about the class issue at play here – Othello and Desdemona are not in the same class, regardless of their skin colors, and this seems to be very important.
Since this scene doesn’t really resolve anything – it leads into the following one – we continued reading so we could see how things play out. It’s a long scene, and we stopped every now and then to make sure everyone was keeping up and that we understood what was going on.
One of our takeaways was that, although Othello says he speaks roughly, his language is quite evocative and compelling. He gets his meaning across. We also paid attention to the fact that Brabantio gives essentially the same speech four times, hammering home the point that the only way Desdemona could have done this is if Othello literally enchanted her, but the moment she states that she was a willing participant and loves Othello, he seems to completely deflate. “This breaks him. He’s broken now,” said one woman. His anger is gone, and he expresses hurt and disappointment.
Beyond his parental dismay at Desdemona going behind his back, the ensemble brought up the idea that this loss of control injures Brabantio’s reputation as a senator. “What do your actions say about me?” Several of us have had personal experiences that make us relate to this. One woman also volunteered that the “wealthy, curléd darlings,” – the suitors whom he wanted her to marry – would have enhanced his status and reputation, but the marriage to Othello does not.
This led Kyle to mention the “lace curtains” metaphor – a house may look beautiful from the outside, with lace curtains, but if the occupants have spent all of their money on those curtains, the inside is likely a mess. I remarked that the metaphor can work two ways. “Yeah,” said one woman ruefully, remarking that part of her family will have nothing to do with her because she’s in prison – they’ve written her off because of that label. “But that’s the thing about lace curtains,” said another woman, “If you get close enough, you can see through ‘em.” This, too, works two ways.
There was a strong reaction to Desdemona’s assertion of her love for Othello and desire to go to war with him. “I wish I could feel that way about a man at some point in my life,” said one woman. Her sentiments for her husband are truly beautiful. We talked about how, despite him being an admittedly hard man, Desdemona’s empathy for Othello and his struggles softened him emotionally toward her. There’s so much set up here for what follows.
We then branched off into a discussion of the term “Moor” – both its denotation and connotations. We are working toward viewing this play both through our own experiences and with the knowledge that Elizabethans had a very different worldview and use of language. It’s a difficult balance to strike. We noted that sometimes when people refer to Othello as “the Moor,” they are being obviously disrespectful, but sometimes they are not, as when Desdemona says, “… I do love the Moor…” We know she thinks the world of him. “Hey, you can say ‘white girl’ and have it be either a good thing or a bad thing,” one woman pointed out. We talked about what Othello might look like, and how much it matters – not exactly what shade his skin is, but the fact that he’s different and foreign – he’s not really part of this society and can never hope to blend in.
A few of the women seemed uncomfortable with the amount of time we spent talking about this, but others pointed out that, since it’s a theme in the play, we need to spend time on it. We don’t want to get bogged down, since it’s not the focus of the play, but we do need to continue to be able to have the open, respectful kinds of conversations we had tonight.