There is an unsettling tone that resonates throughout Hank Rogerson's documentary portrait of inmates participating in the theater program at Kentucky's Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. At first, it's hard to pinpoint the cause of the strange feelings the film elicits, and then it slowly becomes more clear: These men—many of them killers and rapists—are, despite the inhuman nature of their crimes, human beings. And as you begin to see the humanity of someone like Leonard, serving 50 years for sexually abusing young girls, or Big G, a cop-killing drug dealer, all of the notions about prisoners that prevail in this society begin to melt away.
A medium-security prison built for 485 but housing 1,100, Luther Luckett is not the sort of prison that you usually see in film. "Prison isn't just locking people up and putting people away. Prison should make a difference," says warden Larry Chandler. Under his charge, Luther Luckett offers 60 educational programs, including Shakespeare Behind Bars, all of which emphasize Chandler's philosophies surrounding the rehabilitation of prisoners. "The day they walk in, we should start preparing them for the day they leave."
Shakespeare Behind Bars is a nine-month program facilitated by Curt Tofteland. As Rogerson's wonderfully brilliant film starts, the prisoners are just beginning a new session as they prepare to mount a production of The Tempest. The inmates cast themselves in the various roles, and as the rehearsal process kicks into full gear, Tofteland and the inmates begin to dig into the true meaning of Shakespeare's play, finding parallels between themselves and the characters. Perhaps more than any other play by Shakespeare, The Tempest—a tale of a man driven by rage, isolated from society, and finding redemption—is the closest to the lives of these men.
Offering a multilayered exploration of the subject matter, Rogerson's documentary comes together as a work of brilliant drama. On the surface, this is a profile of a troupe of actors as they prepare to bring their show to the stage—which just happens to be within the confines of a prison. But on a much deeper level, Shakespeare Behind Bars is an intimate portrait of several of the key troupe members, who grapple with the sins of their past, and look for redemption in their future. "I have to fight to see the goodness in me," says a tearful Sammie, who has already served 20 years for murder. And that simple statement captures what Rogerson's documentary and The Tempest are both about—reclaiming humanity that has been tarnished by a life filled with anger and violence. Shakespeare would be proud.
Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 pm Friday, Saturday and Monday-Thursday, April 14-15 and 17-20. Additional shows at 1 and 2:45 pm Saturday and Sunday.