MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - The 16-year-old with a ready smile stood up straight, threw back his shoulders and walked to the middle of the room.
He looked each person in the eye as he greeted them and then launched into his life story, including how he went from playing middle school football to spending time in Shelby County Juvenile detention.
“Right now I can’t do nothing but dream and talk about it because I’m in here,” he read. “But I am still dreaming.”
He is one of the teens who meet weekly with members of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company to work on writing and oration skills.
On this day, they were not rehearsing one of the Bard’s many works, but rather sharing their own journeys through original speeches. By late fall, they and several other young men in the juvenile detention center will be working their way through Shakespeare’s history play, “Henry V.”
A $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Shakespeare in American Communities, a national program managed by Arts Midwest, was awarded to the Cordova-based theater company to expand its educational outreach beyond area schools to the juvenile justice system.
Tennessee Shakespeare Company is one of seven theater companies across the country that received the first-time grant to bring the Shakespeare initiative to juveniles in the justice system over the next year.
“Our belief is that William Shakespeare and his plays are for everyone,” said Dan McCleary, founder and producing artistic director of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company.
“I take that as our marching orders, especially in my hometown of Memphis because Memphis has never had, and frankly Tennessee has never had, a permanent, professional Shakespeare company. While that may sound like something elite, the fact of the matter is the antithesis of that. It is for everyone.”
The Tennessee Shakespeare Company at 7950 Trinity Road in Cordova is about to start its 12th season and McCleary said part of its mission is to take Shakespeare to as many children as possible.
The company has partnered with Shelby County Schools, the Germantown Municipal School District, Collierville Municipal School District, charter and private schools through a $25,000 matching grant for the Romeo and Juliet Project, where students learn and perform the play.
“Shakespeare wrote for everyone and he put all of us on stage,” McCleary said. “As Hamlet said, he really does hold the mirror up to nature.”
For 24 weeks, twice a week beginning in October, the juveniles charged as adults and housed at Shelby County Jail East, the women’s facility, will learn and then perform “Henry V,” along with the prisoners in the Shelby County jail’s youth offender pod, a unit for prisoners who are 18 to 25 years old.
The two groups will be taught the play separately. The audience for the play is still being worked out, said Stephanie Shine, the education director for the Tennessee Shakespeare Company.
Shine, along with Carmen-maria Mandley, the education manager for TSC, have been going to Jail East for several months to work with youth on autobiographical speeches that they plan to give to younger children to help them stay in school and out of trouble.
“The streets don’t love nobody,” said a 16-year-old boy as he recited the speech he spent hours memorizing in his cell. “My mom died when I was 13 and that is when my life went left and I made wrong choices, but I am not an animal. I am a human being.”
Because the young men are juveniles their names and photographs of their faces are not allowed to be used.
The 16-year-old said he loves the weekly visits by the Shakespeare Company and is looking forward to working through “Henry V.” He said in school he knew about “Romeo and Juliet” and the “old language” of Shakespeare.
“I have something to look forward to,” he said about the play. “We are in our cells for 23 hours and this helps me learn about another world. A world outside of here. It helps me keep my dreams alive.”
Information from: The Daily Memphian, http://https://www.dailymemphian.com/
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