Monday, September 17, 2012

"My Daddy is a Prince!"

After the performance, he was unsure how his daughter would react. He stepped toward her and opened his arms.  She ran into them, and he held her.  “It felt like only a moment,” he said, “but it felt eternal… the most beautiful moment I have ever known.”  When someone nearby asked her what she thought of her Daddy up there on stage, she beamed and exclaimed, "My Daddy is a prince!"  

 When I first met Peter, he was 27, a lanky young man with a sensitive face, a gentle voice, and a haunted look in his eyes.  He was one of 14 incarcerated men  who had volunteered to participate in a production of The Tempest at Racine Correctional Institution in Sturtevant, Wisconsin.  Peter had chosen to play the role of Ferdinand, the young nobleman who vies for the affections of Miranda. 

     Peter began serving his time in prison seven years earlier.  At the age of 20, he was convicted of robbing a restaurant at knife point, using duct tape to confine the store manager to a chair.  He was sentenced to 30 years.    
    While Peter participated in every correctional program that he could, two in particular stand out as especially significant for him.  The first was a victim awareness program that he participated in about three years after he began to serve his time.    
      The second program that "made a big difference" was The Shakespeare Project (TSP), which he joined about four years later.  As Peter puts it, he had already demonstrated to himself (and others) that he was capable of empathy, remorse, and remediation.  Shakespeare, he says, offered something more.  "Before, I had always been trying to fit into some image of what I thought people wanted me to be.  The Shakespeare  Project was a chance for me to say this is who I am."  For nine months, Peter worked closely with other prisoners, and with several volunteer teachers and artists.  In addition to playing the role of Ferdinand (his first opportunity ever to act in a play), Peter helped to compose an original score, and played in the pit band.
         On the night of our public performance, Peter's mother and sisters were there.  So was his seven-year-old daughter, who had not seen him in over two years. Since the actors were in costume, it was the first time in her life that she had seen her father in any clothing other than prison greens.  His performance was radiant.  At the end of the show, the actors had the opportunity to mingle and greet the audience members.  Peter's mother and sisters were beaming and wiping the tears from their eyes.  He was unsure how his daughter would react. He stepped toward her and opened his arms.  She ran into them, and he held her.  “It felt like only a moment,” he wrote, “but it felt eternal… the most beautiful moment I have ever known.”  When someone nearby asked her what she thought of her Daddy up there on stage, she beamed and exclaimed, "My Daddy is a prince!" 
            Now, five years later, Peter is out of prison and on parole.  He is living with family, holding down two jobs, and being the best father to his daughter that he can be.  Looking back at The Shakespeare Project, he describes it as a critically important moment in his preparation for release:  "It gave me a renewed sense of life.  It was kind of a coming out for me."  He says the most valuable aspect of the program was that it showed him that "there are other things out there in life...  the world is huge.  There are healthy, productive things to do in life."