The Missouri Department of Corrections is giving Agnes Wilcox a retirement party. Agnes doesn’t work for the DOC. She’s the artistic director of Prison Performing Arts that has been doing theater in Missouri prisons for more than 20 years. Agnes deserves a party thrown by the DOC.
In the '90s, when Agnes directed a St. Louis theater company, she became friends with a DOC director and she began to write into the Actors’ Equity contracts one performance at a Missouri prison. After a performance of a play about St. Louis lives, during the discussion with inmates, one of them said, “We could do that. We could do it better.” So Agnes asked me to lead a playwriting course. She would direct the ensuing play.
The result was "Barbers, Robbers and Nuts," about the barbers spotting the guns and putting the would-be criminals into the chairs, wrapping them in the protective drapes and cutting their hair while other customers quizzed them about their skills and life hopes, and offered them jobs. The play received thunderous applause from the inmate audience. Agnes asked her newly-formed acting troupe what they would like to do next. One of the men said, “How about Hamlet. I hear that’s a good play,” and in 1996, Prison Performing Arts was born.
Agnes directed an act of "Hamlet" every six months for two and a half years. The men would practice their lines every spare moment, asking the guy behind them in chow line to cue them. Volunteer professors came in to teach about the play. For one act Agnes borrowed costumes from the New York City Opera and for another she dressed the men in trench coats. Three men shared the title role, adding depth and complexity to the play -- and the audience got it. Professional actresses played Ophelia and Gertrude. Ira Glass featured the show on "This American Life" on public radio. Gertrude said in an interview that the rehearsals were just like all the other rehearsals she ever worked. And that was only the beginning.
Agnes had done Brecht, Ovid’s "Metamorphoses," Broadway shows like "The Front Page" and spoken word projects like Hip Hop poetry. She’s arranged college credit. Prison Performing Arts works at a juvenile detention center, two men’s prisons and one women’s prison. Part of Agnes’s gift is that PPA will continue. It has a new director and funding that’s as stable as any small nonprofit ever is. So I’ll go to Agnes’s retirement party heart full of love and gratitude -- and I’ll cry a little with the inmates who will miss Agnes sorely.