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Fall 2012

To See the Stars

Ron Jenkins and studentsRon Jenkins rehearses with former inmates Saundra Duncan and Lynda Gardner. (Photo by Steve Miller.)

For Wesleyan University theater professor Ron Jenkins, Ed.M.'79, Ed.D.'84, his first experience in prison was in 1989, when he was arrested during a demonstration against the apartheid government in South Africa. Crowded into a cell with more than 100 other men, Jenkins remembers enduring repulsive and dehumanizing conditions, with prisoners not even released to use the bathroom. However, these conditions were not what left the most lasting impression on him. Instead, it was the prisoners themselves: Rather than complain, they chose to sing and dance in order to celebrate their ongoing struggle for freedom.

Now, more than 20 years later, Jenkins has used that spontaneous act of theatrical transformation as a source of inspiration, with a program he created that attempts to use theater as a catalyst for positive change in prisons throughout the world.

The program, called the Dante Project, has been facilitated in New York, Connecticut, Italy, and Indonesia. In the program, Jenkins uses classics like Dante's Inferno and the works of Shakespeare to encourage incarcerated men and women to write about points of connection between their own life stories and the experiences of the characters, which are then woven together to create a script that is performed inside the prisons. The program extends outside the walls of the prisons as well, with college students from his classes at Wesleyan also performing the scripts at other colleges and in the community before engaging in discussions about issues related to reforming the criminal justice system in the United States.

"The goal is to use theater as a catalyst for transformation, inside prisons and out," Jenkins says. It is about "personal transformations for incarcerated individuals who want to imagine a future for themselves that is different than the past experiences that brought them to prison, and transformations for the college students whose time in the prison gives them new insights into the way the criminal justice system works."

As one former inmate, Lynda Gardner, told The Boston Globe about the program, "I spent my first six months [in York Correctional Institution in Connecticut] trying to kill myself, and the next four and a half years trying to see how much more I can live."

In one of the most recent outreaches into the community, Jenkins, his Wesleyan students, and three women who had been incarcerated at York, including Gardner, attended the Ed School Alumni of Color Conference in March to perform a mash-up of Dante's Inferno and the prisoner's life stories called To See the Stars.

For Jenkins, this kind of performance and these three strong women represent the successful transformations that can be achieved through theater, a lesson he remembers first learning during his time spent studying at the Ed School. Professors such as Howard Gardner and his colleagues at Project Zero showed him that the arts are linked to human development in ways that are often unappreciated by the education establishment. Professor Gerry Lesser taught him about the impact of the arts on education through the course he taught on the development of Sesame Street.

Now, Jenkins has witnessed how the arts really can make a difference.

"Theater is an art of transformation because it gives people a chance to take on roles they've never played before — to try out new identities, to redefine themselves — and sometimes what happens on stage can be a rehearsal for new ways of looking at the world off stage in real life," he says. "That has been the case for the three performers that appeared at Harvard. They refused to let themselves be defined as ex-convicts and instead have distinguished themselves as remarkable teachers, artists, writers, and advocates for social justice."