4:10pm

Tue January 4, 2011
Africa

Bringing The Bard Behind Bars In South Africa

South Africa has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with roughly 1 in 300 people behind bars. This has inspired a growing number of prison outreach programs. In Cape Town, one such program isn't turning criminals into angels. But it's helping rehabilitate young men -- and apparently producing some fine actors.

The Bonnytoun House is a juvenile detention center in the well-to-do Cape Town suburb of Kenilworth. The open cement courtyards and covered walkways make it feel more like a dilapidated old college quad than a prison -- until you see the barbed wire and heavy steel bars.

Hundreds of boys pass through Bonnytoun each year, for everything from home break-ins to drug abuse to murder. Most are at the facility for a few months, but some spend years following a routine of meals, classes and counseling. But a new creative arts program has attracted a lot of attention.

In its second year, a program by the Independent Theater Movement of South Africa brings Shakespeare to Bonnytoun. The three-week crash course in speech and acting ends with a staged performance inside the prison, two or three times a year.

Recently, one group is working on Hamlet. One of the boys, just 15, is in prison for two charges of robbery. He wears a black Bonnytoun T-shirt and fidgets with his hands as he talks. South African law protects the identities of juvenile criminals, so his name cannot be given.

"For this, it's actually a big thing for me. This will actually be like the biggest thing, an opportunity to experience how to feel, how actors feel, and how to work with a real producer," he says.

Casting Inmates In A Different Light

Tauriq Jenkins is the creative director. He's 29, with a trademark director's goatee. He says many of the boys are quite talented.

"Some of the best actors you'll ever find are the guys who sit in prison. In many cases, these gentlemen have a refined sense of how to read a situation, of how to read human nature," Jenkins says.

And he says acting allows them to express emotions they normally keep bottled up.

"If you shed tears in a prison, you are picked on. You are bullied. And yet the theater convention protects me from being humiliated," Jenkins says.

Dennis Baker has been a manager at Bonnytoun for 25 years. He's a sizable man with short, curly gray hair. He says there was initially some skepticism over the Shakespeare program. But he's seen it help many inmates.

"A lot of them were timid, reticent, shy boys, but here they were given the impression to become something else, outside of themselves, and to find some kind of release. It made a difference to how they felt about themselves. That much was evident," he says.

He says the production even caused his staff to see the boys differently.

"You can almost see the light go on when they see that same boy, in a totally different light, with a tunic on, pretending to be some kind of warrior, you know? And they say, maybe this boy can change," Baker says.

All's Well That (Mostly) Ends Well

Another boy, 17, is at the facility for assault. He slouches in his chair, arms folded across his gray Bonnytoun sweater, and wears a beat-up pair of Chuck Taylors.

"Actually, I thought I was going to be kicked out ... because I didn't know I was capable of doing this," he says.

Now, though, he says he is doing it -- acting.

The night before the Hamlet performance, the cast receives some surprising news, says Jenkins.

"I was looking for my Marcellus in the one scene. ... So the guys went to look for him and said, 'No, he's jumped ship,' " he says with a laugh. "He had escaped the facility."

It was an ironic escape: The character the inmate played was a guard. But the next day, the show went on as planned, before a crowd of about 50 people -- mostly family, friends, and fellow inmates. It was a great performance. And the number of prison guards present more than made up for the missing one. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.