Young Inmates Strut Their Hour Upon the Stage

Inmates at Oak Hill detention facility rehearse for their upcoming performance of
Inmates at Oak Hill detention facility rehearse for their upcoming performance of "Macbeth". Pictured, Macbeth consults the witches, right, for prophecies after assuming the throne of Scotland. (Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Thursday, March 15, 2007

Banquo, brave and noble, wears dreadlocks, sleeps in a one-man cell and lives behind a towering fence of razor wire.

He describes himself as a "fun and easy" guy who stands up for his friend Macbeth. But although Banquo sees through what Shakespeare calls "the instruments of darkness," Macbeth succumbs to his base desires.

Which pretty much describes life on the streets where Banquo -- Anthony Freeland, a 16-year-old resident of Oak Hill, the District's juvenile detention center in Laurel -- grew up. In Kenilworth in Northeast, Anthony and the guys he came up with saw few options. And no Shakespeare.

"I had a different path in mind," Anthony says, but now he's at Oak Hill, where every day is the same, where being counted and cuffed is as much a part of the routine as school and lunch. Anthony attributes his sojourn at the facility to "too much idle time and bad decision-making," to city schools that never expected much from him and a neighborhood where opportunity seemed to stop at the corner.

Now, at Oak Hill, where he least expected it, he has a new kind of opportunity: When he finishes talking to me, Anthony dons a robe of glorious colors, takes the stage and seeks to guide Macbeth away from evil: "Merciful powers, restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature gives way to in repose!"

Before the teens began working on the production, staged by the youth theater company of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Anthony had never read a word of Shakespeare, never been to any of the city's two dozen theaters, never seen a play. "This was something no kids in my neighborhood had ever done," he says without recrimination, simply stating a fact. "We just played football and basketball. We know how to do that.

"We just stay in this little neighborhood. It's our comfort zone. If you go downtown, you feel like you don't know nothing, like you're out of place."

He and his friends would occasionally venture to Pentagon City in Arlington or Iverson Mall in Prince George's County, but mainly they stayed where they lived and did what they did. Oak Hill's ground rules for our interview allowed Anthony to be identified but forbade me from asking him how he ended up there. Most of the detainees were involved in drugs, car theft or robberies.

And none of them could make the slightest sense of Shakespeare when they first heard the Elizabethan language. Several cast members dropped out during rehearsals when they saw that their excuses were not going over, that they really did have to learn their lines. But within days, they were back, asking for another chance.

Vince Schiraldi, the dynamic director of the youth rehabilitation services agency who is transforming the city's long-dysfunctional juvenile justice system, was confident that the kids would ultimately connect with the Bard.

When Schiraldi visited the final rehearsal the night before the kids' performance Friday for Mayor Adrian Fenty at the Wilson Building downtown (they performed it again this week at a teen festival at the Folger Shakespeare Library), he said that however nervous they might be, they had it in them to be actors.

Indeed, he said, they were far more experienced than they might realize: "Tomorrow, a lot of people in that room, they think of you guys as whatever it is you did to get locked up. How many of you have had the experience of having people cross the street because they see you and they're afraid of you?" Every hand in the room went up.


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