“‘Let us descend into the blind world now,’ the poet, who was deathly pale, began; ‘I shall go first and you will follow me.’” Inferno, Canto IV
The drive from Yale Divinity School to MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution takes a little less than an hour. This gives Professor Ronald Jenkins enough time on the bus to meet with each of his five students—four from Yale Divinity School and one senior undergraduate—to talk about the pieces they will present in their class, “Performance Behind Bars: Sacred Music, Sacred Texts, and Social Justice.” On Nov. 7, I boarded the Hy’s Limo Service bus with Jenkins and his class and rode the hour north with them to Windsor Locks. As we drove away from Yale’s campus, the fall palette of East Rock Park gave way to the gray of highways and the pink and blue of the fading cotton candy sky. I could just barely see Jenkins’s two bushy, gray-black eyebrows above his seat at the front of the bus, where he and his teaching assistant Nicole gave their students feedback on the poems, raps, and dialogues they had written to perform for their inmate partners at MacDougall-Walker.
Professor Jenkins, Visiting Professor of Religion and Literature from Wesleyan, has taught Performance Behind Bars over a dozen times. Though the course has had various names and iterations, whenever Jenkins teaches it, he teaches Dante’s Divine Comedy. He has taken his class across the globe to York Correctional Institution and Sing Sing Correctional Facility, as well as prisons in Indonesia and Dante’s hometown, Florence. No matter where he teaches, Jenkins said the inmates identify with Dante’s story.
“It’s always a great adventure to read Dante and see how deeply people connect to him in dire circumstance,” he told me. He said he learns something new every time. “Everyone is going on some kind of journey in their life from someplace that may not be so great to someplace they hope is better, but in prison that journey is more urgent.”
Divina Commedia—The Divine Comedy—follows Dante on his journey to God through three books: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The story opens with Dante lost in a dark wood, having strayed from the moral path. Dante Alighieri, the poem’s author, was a Florentine politician bitterly opposed to Pope Boniface VIII, and when Boniface organized a military coup, Dante was exiled and could not return home on pain of death. A poet and new outlaw, Dante filled the circles of hell that his fictional surrogate navigates with his political enemies, and deposited his late, lifelong love in heaven. He does not make his voyage alone, though. The ghost of Virgil, the classical poet, meets Dante in the wood and acts as his guide through the circles of hell and the layers of Purgatory. Virgil himself is a permanent resident of the Inferno. He resides in the first circle, Limbo, with pagans and those who died before Christ could take on their sins. Limbo houses generations of great poets and intellectuals, trapped for reasons beyond their control.
It’s dark and cold when we get to MacDougall-Walker, and Professor Jenkins leads us into the yellow-tinted reception area where a single uniformed officer and a walk-through metal detector greet the prison’s visitors. Jenkins approached the officer and said, “We have an extra guest tonight”—though, having gone through a background check and approval process, my visit was no surprise to them. We proceed through the metal detector and make our way through a series of holding chambers where the doors lock behind us before they open on the opposite side to let us out. After a long, tall corridor, and up a flight of stairs, we reach what looks like an elementary school with no windows. Quotes from prominent African-American writers and activists pepper the walls: “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. –Malcolm X.” We file into Classroom #4, above which is written, “Time doesn’t change things. You actually have to do it yourself.”
Change is exactly what Professor Jenkins has in mind. “The mix of theater, and Dante, and prison, they seem to work well together because they’re all about transformation,” he noted when I spoke with him a few weeks earlier. “Dante’s poem is a poem of transformation. How do you transform your world from hell to heaven?” Jenkins himself is an agent of transformation. Here within this classroom, away from the blocks and the chaos of incarceration, Professor Jenkins creates a circle of poets who, on Dec. 7, will perform their interpretation of Dante’s Inferno for their fellow inmates. If only for three hours on a Monday evening, Jenkins guides his poets through Limbo to understand, and maybe transcend, the Inferno.
While we wait for the incarcerated students to join us, Professor Jenkins passes around the assignment that the class will be working on for next week. It’s based on a quote from Ulysses’s speech in Canto 26: “You were not meant to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” The Yale students read over the assignment quietly, as their incarcerated peers, all black and Latino men, trickle into the room.
“Great grief seized my heart [when this I heard] because some people of [much] worth I know, who in that Limbo were suspended.” Inferno, Canto IV
Yale’s Divinity School sits atop“Science Hill.” Up the steep incline of labs and classroom buildings, the green quadrangle is framed by red brick buildings and, at the far end, a tall, white-domed steeple. I’m meeting Professor Jenkins for the first time in the small café in the back corner of the school—the refectory. The refectory does not live up to the solemnity of its name; a tiny pumpkin decorates every table and early 2000s alt rock blasts from ceiling speakers. Professor Jenkins walks in wearing a long coat and a long face. He has a large frame but soft features and a softer voice. I have to lean in close to hear him over The Fray’s “How to Save a Life.”
He explains to me the structure of his class. Every week, he asks his students to read an excerpt from The Divine Comedy and write a reflection—a poem, a rap, a letter, a story—on a theme taken from the passage. The next week, they present their pieces to the class, and by the end of the semester, each incarcerated student will pick the piece of theirs they like the best, and, together, stitch a new interpretation of Dante’s story.
Jenkins has honed his sense of direction over many years of wandering. In college, he wanted to be a child psychiatrist, so he worked at Bellevue Hospital in New York with autistic kids. He didn’t like what he saw there, though. “The psychiatrists there, all they did was inject the kids with drugs and then note the changes. So they were using them as guinea pigs for drug experiments and that was really disillusioning to me. I didn’t want to go to medical school to learn how to do that,” he recalled. That revelation, as horrifying as it was, set him on his proper journey. “I did, in the course of working there, see that when these nonverbal autistic kids were with me they would respond to nonverbal games especially if you could make them funny. So this nonverbal clowning became the way to make contact and get them to look in your eyes, and it’s a very human connection.” Jenkins left Bellevue and dropped out of college to become a clown. He went to a clown school in Mexico for a while but then won enough prize money on a TV game show in Los Angeles to enroll at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. He wanted to learn how to make kids laugh, he said.
He toured with the circus for a bit, but after a while it wasn’t satisfying anymore. He was tired of doing the same thing over and over again and wanted to take what he had learned from the hospital and clown school and apply it elsewhere. So he went back to school, still a young man in his early twenties, and upon graduation went to Bali for a year to study the clown traditions in villages and temple ceremonies. “The clowns there were really responsible for taking the ancient texts and updating them based on what the needs of the village were and what the audience needed to hear in that moment,” he explained. When, in 2002, Bali experienced terrorist bombings that killed 202 people, the clowns performed stories about coping with disaster. “In that culture it’s built into the tradition that theater is an art of transformation that is part of the survival of the community. And here it’s not built in, but you can try to find ways to help your community survive through theater.”
Like theater, prison is supposed to be about transformation and rehabilitation, but it hardly ever is, Jenkins explained, so those “who honestly want to experience some kind of transformation when they’re in prison really appreciate the opportunity to read about Dante because he’s a role model for that and they sense that.” Dante is the perfect model for Jenkins’s belief in this type of transformation because of his own identity as a felon. “Dante was someone who was condemned to death, convicted of crimes, but we don’t remember him as a convict,” Jenkins said. “We remember him as a poet. He, in a sense, transformed his identity through writing, and in the course of this work, the men who we work with in prison are also transforming their identities.”
When the incarcerated students settle into Classroom #4, Jenkins notices that someone’s missing. “Where’s James?” he asks. Carl answers: “He went to the Box.” Some of the inmates laugh; Jenkins looks confused, so Carl elaborates. There was a fight, he explains, and though James did nothing wrong, it was he said/he said, and they both got thrown in the Box. He stresses that it isn’t a big deal, perhaps in an attempt to soften it for us, the outsiders. “Politics,” someone interjects. Jenkins asks if James will be gone for a long time, but nobody knows. He doesn’t let it derail him. The week’s assignment was on justice or injustice as inspired by Cantos 18 and 19 from Paradiso. “I was gonna write about justice,” George admits to the group, “but I went to court last week…and I wrote about injustice instead.” He tried to be positive, he said, but he couldn’t keep in his rage. Professor Jenkins tells him he’s glad he didn’t. He asks if anyone wants to volunteer to share their assignment first, and Greg raises his hand.
Greg takes the stage in the middle of the circle. Jenkins suggests he simply stand in front of his chair so that he never has his back to anyone, but Greg insists he’ll deliver to the entire audience. He starts his piece with an original song—just him snapping and singing—performing, as promised, to the entire room. He then launches into a spoken word poem. “To leave this place unsuccessful is my only fear, and my heart is full of pride,” he reads from his page at one point. “Done so much good in my life why won’t you set me free?… Comes down to a dollar bill. If I was a wealthy man I’d have the right to kill?” At the end of his piece, Jenkins calls for what he terms “echo back,” where the students each repeat back a line that resonated with them. “If I was a wealthy man I’d have the right to kill?” a few intone back to Greg, nodding or shaking their heads.
Kamal goes next. He wrote a story about meeting his grandmother, who died of breast cancer before he was born. She tells him that she’s been watching him his whole life like a guardian angel. He goes to respond but finds he can’t speak; this, she says, is so he will listen with ears wide open when she tells him it was she who put him in jail. “The path you were on was going to lead to you to get killed by another man’s gun,” she claims; she did it because she loves him. “Son, don’t cry. Good is definitely going to come from this experience…It’s already started.” He finishes his piece. The class echoes back.
“You remind me of your grandfather.”
“I’ve been watching you your whole life.”
“I’m the one who put you in jail.”
“It’s already started,” Jenkins echoes, nodding.
“My guide and I came on that hidden road to make our way back into the bright world; and with no care for any rest, we climbed—he first, I following—until I saw, through a round opening, some of those things of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there that we emerged, to see—once more—the stars.” Inferno, Canto XXXIV
Though the incarcerated poets do reflect on their own lives and experiences, they don’t ignore the fact that they are at the mercy of a flawed system. “I can’t say only God knows because only the judge knows,” Martin recites. In Mason’s piece, the lion of justice cowers in the face of the snake of injustice. The snake hisses, “I’m easier for everyone to get along with. I appeal to the side of people they don’t want to admit they have, the side they keep hidden behind closed doors. Lucky for me courtrooms, jails, and prisons have plenty of doors.”
Henry also used an animal to speak for injustice, but he chose a gorilla, which he included in a drawing he did for the show’s poster. The gorilla, missing an eye, sits on top of the globe with a cruel grimace and an uneven balance in his hand. “Why is the U.S. so quick to answer problems in other countries but can’t handle their own backyard?” he asks the gorilla. “I can’t answer that; the truth will leave you damaged and scarred,” Injustice responds. Henry follows up, “Why are people voting for Donald Trump? After Nov. 8, we won’t have to worry about that grump.”
Martin describes the cycle of going in and out of prison as “a revolving door,” an image that reminds me of one of the many eternal tortures endured by the damned in Dante’s hell. “Everything is money in the Justice Department,” someone explains.
“If you don’t have money they won’t let you out.”
“Money is justice!” they all agree. Though everyone calls for criminal justice reform, someone notes, nobody listens to an inmate’s perspective. “We’re felons! Our voices don’t matter,” someone else adds. “Our system is so distorted. They don’t care if you’re innocent or not.”
“The world needs drastic change, especially in the judicial system. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Our country wasn’t built in a day,” George mused later. Martin offers the hope that brought the men to Classroom #4 in the first place: “As long as you educate yourself, no one can ever take that from you.”
After the men have all shared their pieces with the group, they sit with their partners to prepare for the next week’s assignment. One of the inmates, Mason, was in the class last year, but is taking it again now. He says that people who saw the performance last year call out to him around the prison to tell him they liked his work. People call him “Black Moses,” he tells me, and, though he keeps to himself for the most part, people seek him out for his wisdom. “There are a lot of people who don’t belong here but they got smoked by the broken system. I’ll be reading a magazine and someone comes over to talk. They just want five minutes of positivity from me,” he says. He goes to church and to class (he’s working towards an MBA and plans to start a company); he’s not about the bullshit, he says. Mason is tall with deep, dark eyes and what sounds to me like a vaguely Midwestern accent. This is not his world, and he’s going home. Carl asks if he’ll stay home. Mason says yes.
Professor Jenkins roams from group to group, offering guidance for what’s next and reflections on the day’s work. When he gets to Greg, he compliments his musical element and suggests he add even more when he revisits the piece. Greg asks what grade Jenkins would give him for his performance, the one that started what Jenkins describes as “a powerful group session.” You would absolutely get an A, Jenkins tells him as he heads over to another group. “I got an A at Yale,” Greg smirks after him.
Like Professor Jenkins himself, Jenkins’s teaching assistant, Nicole Klosterman, has followed a winding path to teaching Dante in prisons. Though she is in the same year at Yale Divinity School as some of her current students, she has some years of experience on them. She took a decade off after school, bouncing around different work and life experiences the way sage adults who went to grad school always advised but didn’t always do themselves. Though still young, she has a collection of shallow smile lines at the corner of each honey-brown eye. She ended up at divinity school through yoga teacher training. It put her in the position of being a student again, which resonated, she said. “It also opened up my access to my spiritual existence in a different way, and that just changed my experience in the world and what I wanted and what I wanted to be doing.”
I asked her about Professor Jenkins, and she, like most of the other students, released an affectionate chuckle in response. “I guess it should be obvious that he’s not doing it for fame and glory—that his heart is so completely into it,” she said. “I’ve seen him brought to tears so many times talking about the men and women, and there’s a line of Dante that he always quotes. I don’t remember the first part of it, but it’s ‘I was surprised to see that there were so many people of such worth held in this place’ in Limbo. And he always tears up when he says it.” She has a slow manner of speaking, and as she hunted for the quote and began to deliver it, the Divinity School’s church bells had begun to ring outside.
A few days later, when I meet Jordan Lorenz in the Divinity School’s common room—a carpeted hall with a grand piano and armchairs by the fireplace—he’s in a Yale Divinity School quarter-zip sweatshirt, khakis, and boat shoes. He’s a classic New England boy from Maine, but after graduation he worked only six weeks at a tech startup before quitting to work with conservative Muslim refugee youth in Lewiston. “And why I’m here? I don’t really know,” he mused. “I felt like I had a call to be studying divinity sort of out of my own profound struggle with my faith.”
When he talked about Professor Jenkins, he spoke with an incredulous reverence—to him, Jenkins is a miraculous character, hard to pin down or describe. “I guess when I saw that we were studying Dante I had this image of a very stodgy, old theater professor who’s really into this one incredibly esoteric discipline and I assumed that the workshops would be really dull, and it’s not,” Jordan said. “He’s not in this because he’s an academic who thinks he’s going to get something academic out of this. Let’s be honest: this is the mother of all academic projects, but I don’t think he does it for that. He seems to genuinely want to keep going back after enough has been written.” He paused for a moment before he came to a conclusion. “He’s Virgil. He’s still down there.”
As I pack up to descend Science Hill after our meeting, Nicole shares one more anecdote about Professor Jenkins. After she took his class, she saw him speak about his work as a temple clown in training in Bali. The talk, she said, gave her a whole new insight on what they were doing in Performance Behind Bars. Jenkins shared that the clowns acted out stories of the gods or situations that mirrored politics or current events. They came into existence, the story goes, when Shiva and Uma were fighting.
“Shiva had read this book with all the future, and he shouldn’t have done that because he saw this one little part about Uma being unfaithful to him. He just flips into his destructive self and she turns into Durga and they’re fighting and DESTROYING THE UNIVERSE because they’re so epic and so large,” Nicole narrated. The clowns then start to put on a play about them in order to process the events. The gods look down and see the shadow play of their destruction of the world and realize the consequence of their actions. “And so the purpose of the temple clowns was, through this play, to reveal the true self to the gods, to the king, to the priests in the temple. And that’s what I see this theater project doing. Through it they are revealing their true selves to themselves, and to the rest of the prison, and…” she trailed off, looking up toward the steeple as she searched for the right words. “And to the world outside as well.”
*Names of inmates have been changed.