Prison Voices: Reimagining Dante’s “Divine Comedy” Behind Bars

Students in Chair and Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins’ course "America in Prison: Theater Behind Bars."
Students in Chair and Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins’ course “America in Prison: Theater Behind Bars.” First row (from left): Kayla Cabán ’22, Veronica Cañas ’23, Milton Espinoza, Jr ’22; second row (from left): Monique Gautreaux ’23, Mosab Hamid ’23, Avanti Sheth ’23.

This past Spring, six students in Chair and Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins’ course THEA 115 “America in Prison: Theater Behind Bars,” collaborated with incarcerated men at the Cheshire Correctional Institution on monologues created in response to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. These six short monologues are written by those men, and are introduced and performed on video by Jenkins’ students (pictured above). For the first half of the semester, students met weekly with their incarcerated partners to discuss Dante’s journey from hell to heaven and its relevance to the prison experience. When the pandemic made personal visits to the prison impossible, the students kept in touch with their partners remotely. Through support from the CFA’s Creative Campus Initiative, the students were also able to consult remotely with two formerly incarcerated men, Dario Peña and Dennis Woodbine, who had previously taken Dante workshops with Jenkins in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Professor Jenkins writes:

“Ten years after reading Dante in prison, these two men spoke with the students about the poem’s continuing relevance to their lives. Woodbine and his lawyer had included a line from Dante in the opening paragraph of his application for clemency, which resulted his early release. Peña spoke about reading the poem as a turning point in his life behind bars. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy after having been exiled from his home and family in Florence, knowing that his conviction would lead to his being burned at the stake if he ever returned. Having facilitated Dante workshops in prisons in Italy, Indonesia and the U.S., I am always impressed by the degree to which men and women behind bars identify with Dante’s journey. Yale Divinity School Professor Peter S. Hawkins attended a Dante performance we staged in a Connecticut prison several years ago. His analysis of the theme of transformation in the Divine Comedy helps explain the poem’s appeal to incarcerated individuals: ‘… it is not the penitents’ suffering that the poem dwells on,’ Hawkins writes, ‘it is the degree to which art, music, language—beauty of all kinds—assist in personal transformation.’”

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