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The Public Theater presents free Shakespeare to prisons, homeless shelters, and senior centers throughout New York City with its Mobile Unit. After a three-week tour of these venues, the Mobile Unit returns to the Public Theater and offers the production to its audiences for only $20.
This year, the Mobile Unit presents “Romeo and Juliet.” The Civilians associate artist Maria-Christina Oliveras, who plays the Nurse, took some time to reflect on her experience, which changed her life. The Mobile Unit’s production runs at the Public from April 11 – May 1. Tickets available here.
When I first signed on to do the Public Mobile Shakespeare Unit, I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew I would be doing “Romeo and Juliet.” I knew I would be working on a role that I loved with Lear DeBessonet, our director, and Stephanie Ybarra, our producer — two visionaries whom I have long admired. And I knew that we would be doing “a tour” for three weeks in prisons, shelters, community centers and libraries, followed by a sit-down run at the Public.
The contradictory feelings, the challenges and delights and hope and devastation of the experience, far surpassed what I could have foreseen. Even now, retrospectively, I fear I can’t fully articulate the impact it’s had on me or feel that my words will do justice to it — to the extraordinary people I met; to the challenges of each space physically, vocally and emotionally; to the constant negotiation of empathy vs. pity; to my deep sadness and rage at seeing so many people of color, particularly the young ones, incarcerated, highlighting the notion that one mistake (which we are all capable of making) can change the entire fabric of your life; the immense joy of seeing so many people from all backgrounds reveling in Shakespeare, teaching me what is so relevant about this play today; sharing this story with audiences who are “trying to keep their mind right” because there is “nothing to do”; learning about this piece through their eyes and ears.
There are countless anecdotes, and I could write pages chronicling the nuance of each day on tour, but I offer some highlights of our interactions. These audiences were great because they engaged with us throughout the show — they were vocal and made clear what they did and did not like.
QUEENSBORO CORRECTIONAL FACILITY (MEN’S):
To our Juliet, before the show: “You remind me of my daughter.”
To the cast after the show: “I want you all to bloom. You all deserve success.”
Commenting on Juliet: “That’s a ride or die girl — they don’t make them like that anymore.” (Urban Dictionary cites, “ride or die chick” as a girl willing to “do anything her man needs her to do.”)
Upon observing Paris’ corpse, “He don’t need that watch no more.”
METROPOLITAN DETENTION CENTER (WOMEN):
In the moment after Juliet and Romeo consummate their marriage with a beautiful dance, a young woman says, “I want to go home.”
TACONIC CORRECTIONAL FACILITY:
During the balcony scene: “OOOhhhh — they f**kin’ in real life.”
After Lord Capulet berates Juliet: “I don’t like you.” Then, Lady Capulet dismisses her: “I don’t like you either.”
“This will be my last Mobile Unit.” (She had previously seen three others, but was being released).
When the Nurse tells Juliet that Romeo is banished: “Conjugal visits in NYC.”
“I’ll see you guys again when I’m out.”
“Is this going to better than ‘Hamilton?’”
The term, “scurvy knave” always seemed to be a hit, Tybalt’s death often solicited cheers, and it was fascinating to see how the balcony transported some audiences into silent revelry and nostalgia and others into squeals of delight and discomfort. Before our performance at Metropolitan Correctional Facility, one of the women spoke about how she was excited to see the show because she heard it was great from the men (for whom we had performed the previous week) and said, “they were all in such a good mood and were so nice to us” after they saw it.
I offer one final story, as my interaction with one of the inmates at Taconic was perhaps my deepest. As part of this production, we always engage with the audience beforehand, welcoming them, getting to “know” them a bit — basically cultivating a space where they feel comfortable to engage with us, really kick back and enjoy. After all, we have come into their homes. Usually, the conversation is topical, and in prisons, you have the added (b)onus of negotiating the land mines of the reality, without calling attention to it. Here’s my recollection of our meeting, and paraphrases through the filter of my memory:
I noticed a white woman, probably in her fifties, shoulder-length white hair, glasses, sitting somewhat isolated from the other women. She had a cane, and I noticed her wrist was in a brace.
I asked her, “What happened?!”
“I fell off a stool at Bedford,” she laughed. “Prison is literally killing me.”
We both laughed. Perhaps a little too long.
“You know,” she said, “I’m thinking of starting my own greeting card line for prisoners and their loved ones? People don’t realize there’s a lot of us, and I really think it would be a hit.”
“Yes. Totally. Martha Stewart could endorse it. Though, I’m not sure she would want to highlight her time in prison. Might be bad for business”
“No, I really think there is something in that.”
“I do too.”
“What’s Bedford?” I asked.
“It’s the maximum security prison right across the street. Everyone goes there first until they are assigned.”
“Gotcha. Are you relieved to be here?”
“There’s abuse in both places. That’s why I pretty much keep to myself.”
We continued, and she proceeded to tell me how the mind was the most dangerous “weapon” here. There was nothing to do:
“There’s a gym,” she said. “It holds 40 people, and there are 400 of us.”
“Is there a library?”
“Yes, if it’s open. They have classes, but it only goes as far as an associates’ degree. I have my Master’s.”
She told me a little bit about the group culture. I felt so comfortable talking with her. I didn’t want to feel invasive, but we were just having a conversation about the state of the “system” as she sees it. I asked her if she had any friends or sense of community. She said she kept to herself because it was safer, but she did help tutor a couple of folks in math for their GED so they would “have her back” should a situation arise.
We proceeded to talk about where she was from, and she told me about her family and her husband, who was a very well-respected dentist. And of course, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking, “what are you in here for?” I share with her a bit about my own family, and how I have a new niece and a nephew coming, and gushed about how I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mom as happy as she is as when she is being a grandmother to Veronica.
Her eyes dropped and she sadly smiled. After a brief moment, she said, “I made a poor choice, but I don’t regret why I made that choice. I would do anything for my grandson, and I made a poor choice. But I don’t regret why I made that choice. To this day, I would do anything for him.”
And this opened up a whole other tap dance. I wholeheartedly agreed with her. We started to talk about my take as the Nurse, and how the character would do absolutely anything for the love and protection of Juliet — it is that deep a love and that deep a binding force, and I get it. We talked about motherhood, and what it is to love someone that deeply — deep deep deep — and the deep repercussions of what it is to love that deeply. I think she could sense I was trying to justify her position, though I still had no idea what she did, because she kept interjecting, “I made a poor choice, but I don’t regret why.” She continued to give me details around the situation that brought her there but never revealed the actual “crime.”
“The media was not kind,” she said. “My daughter forgives me. She brings my grandson to visit every three weeks.” We continued in this for a bit, until my stage manager gently comes up to me, and signals, “places.” As I extended my hand to her, she gave me her full name, twice, making it clear she wanted me to know her story and to see her.
Talk to me in a couple of months, and maybe I will be better able to articulate my feelings, but maybe I won’t. What I do know is I carry all the amazing people I met, their energy, their joy, their brokenness, their mistakes, their love, their generosity, their curiosity, their presence, their regret in my cells, and for that, I am deeply grateful and forever changed.