Regional Arts Commission St. Louis

Christopher Limber, Prison Performing Arts

Agnes Wilcox, the founder of Prison Performing Arts, did a final project called Hip-Hop Hamlet with the men in the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, right before she retired.

She created this hilarious rap version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s so good that I kept saying, “We should do it again.” And the women at Vandalia prison said, “Well, yes, WE should.” So, there are 27 women in this incredible hip-hop piece inspired by their sense of humor and invention. Agnes recently passed away, and it is an awesome responsibility to carry on PPA’s legacy.

Besides teaching literacy, the arts teach problem-solving, conflict negotiation, and the discipline the incarcerated need to re-enter society. Doing a play, you have to learn how to work with people different from yourself and create a community. This work changes the culture in each prison by giving individuals a chance to create together and share with others.

Working as an ensemble also creates new experiences of racial harmony: Black, White, Native American, Asian — everybody works together so preconceptions of race are broken down. The individuals I work with say, “I’ve gained friends on the yard that I would never have spoken to.”

At the end of a show, we take time to celebrate. People talk and share their accomplishments in ways that prisons don’t usually allow. There’s lots of benefits from allowing people to share a joyous experience. There’s nothing more wonderful than doing a show.

— Christopher Limber, Artistic Director of Prison Performing Arts

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