Dante Behind Bars

December 14, 2015

By Melissa Maier

On December 12, students in Professor Ron Jenkins’ course “Sacred Texts and Social Justice” took the stage in Marquand Chapel to perform works based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The unusual interest generated in the outside world by “Dante Behind Bars” istems from the fact that the authors of these dramatic readings are men currently incarcerated in the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, with whom the students have worked weekly throughout the semester to create the work.  It is “Dante’s Hell, With Those Who Can Relate,” as Susan Hodara put it in her 2010 New York Times article about the program’s implementation at Sing Sing. The New Haven performance was followed by a discussion with Scott Semple, Commissioner of the CT Department of Corrections (DOC), and two principals in the DOC education system.

This is the second consecutive semester that Jenkins, professor of theater at Wesleyan University and visiting professor of religion and literature at the ISM and YDS, has brought this program to Yale. A former Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellow, Jenkins has facilitated theater workshops in prisons in Italy, Indonesia, and the United States. He specializes in documentary theater focusing on themes of social transformation and human rights.

The Dante scholar Peter S. Hawkins, professor of religion and literature at YDS and ISM, has written that “….it is not the penitents’ suffering that the poem dwells on, it is the degree to which art, music, language – beauty of all kinds – assist in personal transformation.”

Ron Jenkins agrees.

“Having worked for many years with Dante’s text in prisons I discovered that this theme of transformation is central to the poem’s reception by individuals behind bars,” said Jenkins in the program note. “For the men and women I meet in prison, Dante’s poem is a story of hope. They identify strongly with the author as a man who, like them, was convicted of crimes and exiled from his home. They see Dante as someone in bleak circumstances who chose literature as a path enabling him to write his way out of hell and into heaven. In their written responses to Dante’s poem many incarcerated authors try to do the same thing.”

Jenkins, who was featured in a WNPR article and on the Colin McEnroe Show earlier this year, directed the performance, which was repeated on December 14 at MacDougall-Walker and again that evening at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo in New York.

 “Hearing these responses to Dante’s poem can be transformative for listeners on either side of a prison’s walls,” continued Jenkins. “On the long bus ride back to New Haven after our weekly sessions at MacDougall-Walker I would reflect on the insight, intelligence, and creativity of the men we worked with. The words from Dante that came back to me most often were from Canto IV of Inferno: ‘Deep sorrow struck me when I understood, because then I knew that people of great value were suspended in that limbo.’”

Photos by Tyler Gathro.  Artwork by an inmate of MacDougall-Walker.

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