"Who Better than Us?" Prisoners Perform Shakespeare

On Monday, April 4th at 7:15 PM Dr. Phyllis Gorfain, Professor of English Emerita at Oberlin College, speaks on Oberlin Drama at Grafton (ODAG) at Kendal at Oberlin’s Heiser Auditorium. This program can be instrumental in changing the lives of men in the Grafton Reintegration Center, a minimum security section of the Grafton Correctional Institution.

Dr. Phyllis Gorfain discusses ODAGSo often we hear of incarcerated men, who after serving time, are ill-prepared to re-enter society. Who would think that drama could possibly make the difference? Oberlin Drama at Grafton does. It offers a unique opportunity for these men to make the transition through their involvement in the production of plays, including scenes or full works of Shakespeare. Theatre, especially Shakespeare with its very human characters, can be transforming…and it is. The rehearsals and performances offer a look into themselves, expanding possibilities, building confidence and life skills to re-make their futures.

Phyllis Gorfain was inspired to start Oberlin Drama at Grafton when her friends ( now deceased) Kendal residents, Harvey Gittler and Naomi Barnett, invited her to assist them with their Writers Workshop at Grafton by guiding their imprisoned writers in reading Shakespeare. After nineteen years, Harvey and Naomi retired from leading the Workshop.

ODAG Presentation at KendalPhyllis felt strongly that a performance-centered process would be most impactful for the incarcerated. In 2012 she received permission to start the ODAG program, and has been immersed in it ever since. Phyllis explained, “Acting requires participants to inhabit and bring to life characters and actions and thereby probe their own lives far more deeply than does reading a Shakespeare script.”

Coming up in mid-May ODAG premieres performances of And Yet We’ll Speak, a new play created by the men of ODAG, composed of the their stories and experiences from many aspects of their lives.  The enacted stories are woven together with song, music, movement and poetry forming a tapestry of painful, funny, triumphant and profound stories.

Lillian White has served as Associate Director of ODAG for the past three years. An Oberlin College senior, she has adapted and devised And Yet We’ll Speak as her Honors Thesis and is the principal director of this year’s original play. Phyllis Gorfain, Artistic Director and Founder of ODAG, has supervised Lillian and serves both as producer and assistant director for And Yet We’ll Speak. In addition, Oberlin College students and a recent graduate serve on the ODAG staff. Nineteen incarcerated men participate in the program, with a 20th soon to be added.

Support is also provided by Oberlin College faculty members with their time and expertise, and Kendal residents who attend the performances. All of this generous work is volunteered!