Students, Grafton Inmates Bridge Divides with Shakespeare

Elizabeth Dobbins

A small group of Oberlin faculty and students gathered behind Little Theater this past Sunday, preparing themselves for a performance at the Grafton Correctional Institute. The students were heading to the prison not to reform their outlandish Oberlin behavior, but to put on a production of My Ghosts, My Own for the inmates. The production was brought to Grafton by Oberlin Drama at Grafton, a subsection of the Oberlin-Grafton Educational Exchange Program, which also includes an auto-biography course for the inmates.

“Everybody really enjoyed it. We had a talkback at the end of the performance. And the men were very responsive to the whole show and a lot of them had questions… just really intelligent questions” said College junior Katie Early, a member of ODAG and one of the actors in the show.

The group has put on several plays at the prison since its inception in November 2012. Some productions, like My Ghosts, My Own, starred Oberlin students or alumni; however, the plays have started to feature the inmates themselves, the most recent of which was a show this past fall titled ODAG Swag. The men who performed are part of the biweekly class taught by retired Oberlin English Professor Phyllis Gorfain and College students Julia Melfi, College third year Lillian White, Isabella McKnight and Katie Early.

“The men say that this is one of their favorite parts of their week. They look forward to the class,” said McKnight.

The class consists of about 20 students, with enrollment fluctuating due to releases and transfers. Currently, they’re studying William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Students in the class hope to perform some of the scenes from the play this May in a production for other inmates and outside visitors.

“[Shakespeare] plays are extremely relevant and speak to all different kinds of people,” said White. “There’s a lot of power, for me at least, in what it has to offer theater-making; really asking what theater can do. The role it can play in our society in terms of the questions we ask and how we ask them. And I think that taking theater to alternative spaces or unexpected communities … is in itself a process of re-examining power and the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are as a society.”
Members of ODAG have expressed that they feel as though the men are also benefiting from the program.

“It’s also this amazing experience of community around achievement … Community with a process and a goal, and the process is creative and striving for excellence and using imagination and freeing themselves from inhibitions and losing themselves in something bigger than themselves,” said Gorfain.
“The social change, I think, that then comes about is that they become a model in the prison of the possibility of what a team can do.”

Melfi said that she feels theater can be therapeutic for the inmates, as well as a safe space for expressing emotions.

“There’s something really important in giving the space for somebody who has perhaps committed a serious offense of some sort to have a safe space to express those feelings or to work through those issues, because the way that our prison system is set up is that you make that offense and we shut you away and we don’t let you deal with it,” said Melfi. “Or we don’t give you opportunities to work through that. And that is, to me, really damaging, because what are you supposed to do? Theater allows this safe[ty] net because it’s not real… but it allows you to work through those really real issues, and I think that’s why it’s really important to do this.”

Melfi also emphasized the importance of creating community and safe spaces for the inmates. According to Melfi, while the prison administration has been supportive of ODAG’s work, the prisoners are known to voice doubts about the effectiveness of the reintegration center as a whole.

“[The inmates] also really express that … they don’t really see it [as reintegration], and I’m skeptical also of the types of programs that they have … and nothing is really about what are the skills that you need to create a community,” said Melfi.

Gorfain reported that ODAG has received very positive feedback from the inmates, and that they feel as though they’ve benefited on both an individual and communal level.

“They talk about what happens when you get out of your comfort zone and [take] risks,” said Gorfain. “Doing something you thought you could never possibly do. And that becomes a model that now they think ‘There’s so many other things that when I get out that I will try.’”
The class is held in the Grafton Reintegration Center, a division of the prison for minimum-security prisoners and inmates nearing release.