These are just some of the words shouted out by more than 20 orange-clad men crowded onto the floor of a tiny basketball court inside the DC Jail on recent Thursday. Members of Free Minds Book Club, they were responding to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”
“Yes, pain! Who said that?” called out actor Aldo Billingslea, scanning the group until his eyes landed on 19-year-old David, who offered a proud nod. Billingslea, a cast member of the Folger Shakespeare Theater’s production of A Winter’s Tale, and his costar Drew Drake had come to the jail between performances to share a workshop called “Slinging Shakespeare and Spittin’ Spoken Word.”
Book club members recently read Carl Upchurch’s powerful prison to community activism memoir, Convicted in the Womb, in which Upchurch describes his discovery of a tattered copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets holding up a wobbly desk leg inside his cell inside a federal penitentiary. At the time, Upchurch was a grade school drop-out, who had succumbed to the deprivation and degradation of poverty that led him to self-hatred, crime and incarceration. Upchurch credited Shakespeare, and the hundreds of authors whose books followed, with saving his life.
“He literally found his way out through the power of words,” Billingslea told them.
With Upchurch’s story fresh in their minds, book club members were eager to watch Billingslea and Drake perform monologues from several of Shakespeare’s plays. After each one, individuals took turns responding with the words or mental images that stuck to them—an exercise Billingslea called “adding to the gumbo,” referring to a big imaginary communal pot in the center of the room.
“I’m actually understanding this stuff!” said 38-year-old Dwight, of the unfamiliar language in a scene from Richard III.
Billingslea told the men about his initial disdain for Shakespeare. “I wondered, what do I have in common with a dead white man?” he said. It wasn’t until he read The Merchant of Venice that it began to make sense. “There’s a character named Shylock who realizes the common humanity of Jews and Christians.” Billingslea fell into the character of Shylock: Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
That’s when Billingslea said he realized, “This stuff is about us! It’s about black and brown people too!” he said.
Drake, a talented spoken word poet, credited Shakespeare for inspiring his rap and spoken word. He performed several pieces, including Caged Birds, a biting commentary on racial injustice and mass incarceration that drew thunderous applause and snaps from the audience.
As the 90-minute session neared its end, Billingslea told the men he’d heard how well they could write. They quickly gathered into writing teams of 2-3 to produce their own riffs on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.
With several correctional officers and a case manager gathered at the doorway to take them back to their cells, the men took turns performing their completed pieces. The finale was performed as a rap, complete with two eager young men providing a beat—palms thumped upon their chests—and Billingslea and Drake learning the lines and joining in.
After the session, the actors spoke of the powerful impact the visit had on them. “There was such a sense of community and fellowship in that room, it made me really feel like we were on a journey to having some emotional healing as men, and that is so needed for us,” Drake said.
Shall I compare you to a summer’s day
Is it your smile that casts no clouds
Or is it because your eyes are as bright as the sun
Is it your beauty that keeps me looking
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day
The month of May which brings forth
The breeze of air
That brightens the day
That withers to night
Where dreams of you lull me to sleep
–by Members of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop