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Oberlin Drama at Grafton Blends Art and Rehabilitation in Prison

NELL BECK // APRIL 27, 2018 

A prison might be one of the last places you would expect to see a performance of a Shakespeare play, but Grafton Reintegration Center is home to many of them, thanks to the Oberlin Drama at Grafton (ODAG) program, founded in 2012 by Dr. Phyllis Gorfain, a professor emerita of English at Oberlin. Led by Gorfain, and with the help of a few Oberlin College students, the residents at Grafton create and perform theater productions, mostly those by Shakespeare, but including other playwrights as well.

Grafton Reintegration Center is a minimum-security, all-male prison approximately  thirty minutes outside of Oberlin. The residents are those who are within five years of a parole hearing or scheduled release, meaning that they are at Grafton for a variety of crimes, ranging from unarmed burglary to homicide; some even started out on death row but, most likely through good behavior, have reached the reintegration center. For the residents planning for futures after Grafton, or simply looking for a momentary escape from prison life, ODAG provides them with an incomparable chance to explore themselves, their pasts, and the lives of others through theater.

“Shakespeare enables people to engage in very probing self-examination,” Gorfain says. “The reason Shakespeare works very well… is that his characters are engaged in very passionate, extreme situations, and that accords with a lot of the life experiences [of the men at Grafton]... No matter what mistakes [Shakespeare’s characters] make, particularly in the tragedies, we are engaged with them deeply… we recognize our shared humanity.”

Many of the themes found in Shakespeare’s works resonate with the residents. Gorfain told me that the prominence of domestic violence in Othello relates to the abuse that many of the residents who have participated in ODAG have experienced themselves, saying that “almost all of the people in the group had been abused themselves, often by stepfathers, very occasionally by a mother.”

The men who participate in ODAG - which is entirely voluntary on their part - are allowed to choose which characters they wish to play, but the directors do emphasize that they should try a part that they might not personally feel that they can relate to or want to avoid playing. Often, these end up being the female roles. It can be very difficult to convince the men at Grafton to take on the part of one of the women in the play, but, when they do, it often ends up being very rewarding and revealing for them. Once, a resident played Desdemona in a performance of Othello - and it changed his entire perspective on women and the way in which he had treated them.

“He said, ‘Desdemona has become my moral compass,’” Gorfain says. “In playing her, he came to see himself through Desdemona’s eyes, and he reviewed everything he had said and done with women through Desdemona’s eyes, and [said] that he would never again speak about or treat women in the way he had before.”

In addition to Shakespeare, ODAG has performed works written by playwrights such as August Wilson and Samuel Beckett. In 2016, Oberlin student Lillian White ‘16 wrote and directed an original piece based on the stories of the men at Grafton titled And Yet We’ll Speak. Now, ODAG is working on another original piece centered around the residents’ stories, written and directed by Naomi Roswell ‘18, titled What Really Matters.

“For this show, we began without a script, a plot, or even characters, and instead invested in each other's stories,” Roswell says. “We not only built and rehearsed a play, but we all had a chance to consider ‘what really matters’ when it comes to relationships with family and friends.”

Roswell says that “getting to know the men at Grafton is a little bit like running up a down escalator. We have established a lot of mutual respect and trust, but at the end of the day, I get to leave the prison, and I get to contain the pieces of their lives they share with me inside my own frame - and even after more than a year of working together there is so much we don’t know about each other.”

Yet, with conversation-building questions such as “What’s something you’re an expert at?” and “What’s your best coincidence story?” the men provided Roswell with some very personal accounts: “I have learned about some of the defining moments in [their] lives, ranging from having to decide to take a mother off of life support to meeting a half-brother for the first time and sparking reconnection with [that] side of the family.”

After months of work, the show opened on April 23 for the general population of Grafton and was followed by three other performances. Due to security concerns, those who come from outside of the prison must be invited, either by Gorfain, the student directors, or others working with ODAG.

As ODAG, and similar programs such as Oberlin Music at Grafton (OMAG), show, art is a powerful form of rehabilitation, one that allows those who have gone through extremely trying times to reexamine and change their lives. Deja Alexander ‘18, who has been is working with ODAG since the spring of 2016 and is an assistant director majoring in theater and psychology, says that “theater is a mirror held to the world. These men have grown and changed so much as they have been able to freely explore world concepts and situations through theater in ODAG. Prison should be a place to really rehabilitate… the presence of theater and ODAG makes it a more positive and transformative space.”

Contact contributing writer Nell Beck at nbeck@oberlin.edu.