Yale students to perform prisoners’ re-imaginings of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’

For the past few months, a group of incarcerated men at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution have been re-imagining Dante’s journey from hell to paradise as it might apply to their own life journeys, and have worked with Yale undergraduates and Divinity School students on writing theatrical adaptations of fragments from the medieval Italian poet’s “Divine Comedy.”

Illustration by an anonymous inmate. Courtesy of Ron Jenkins.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, the Yale students will perform the inmates’ adaptations at 3 p.m. in Marquand Chapel, 409 Prospect St. The performance will be followed by a moderated discussion about mass incarceration, transformation, and the arts. The event is free and open to the public.

The students worked with the inmates as part of the course “Sacred Texts and Social Justice,” taught by Ron Jenkins, a visiting professor of religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. Also a faculty member at Wesleyan University, he has facilitated Dante workshops in prisons in Italy, Indonesia, and in the United States.

“Having worked for many years with Dante’s text in prisons, I discovered that this theme of transformation is central to the poem’s reception by individuals behind bars,” Jenkins says of “Divine Comedy.” “While Dante’s ‘Inferno’ lives in the popular imagination as an icon of misery and torment, readers in prison explore the ‘Divine Comedy’ as a story of renewal that parallels their own life journeys from a ‘dark wood … where the straight path was lost’ to a better place where they hope to ‘emerge once again to see the stars.’”

Jenkins adds that the incarcerated individuals he has met identify with Dante as “a man who, like them, was convicted of crimes and exiled from his home.

“They see Dante as someone in bleak circumstances who chose literature as a path enabling him to write his way out of hell and into heaven. In their written responses to Dante’s poem many incarcerated authors try to do the same thing.”

Jenkins says that one woman he met continued to perform Dante’s work after her release from prison, and she said that encountering the poem in prison with other inmates “helped us evolve in an environment where it is much easier to devolve.”

“Hearing these responses to Dante’s poem can be transformative for listeners on either side of a prison’s walls,” Jenkins says. “On the long bus ride back to New Haven after our weekly sessions at MacDougall-Walker, I would reflect on the insight, intelligence, and creativity of the men we worked with. The words from Dante that came back to me most often were from Canto IV of ‘Inferno’: ‘Deep sorrow struck me when I understood, because then I knew that people of great value were suspended in that limbo.’”

Jenkins is directing the performance, which will be offered a second time on Monday, Dec. 14, at 6 p.m. at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo, 24 W. 12th St., New York, New York.

The panelists for the discussion after the Yale performance are Scott Semple, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Correction; Maria Pirro, the school principal at the Manson Youth Institution; and Veron Beaulieu, the state school principal of MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution.

Hear more about the production in this WNPR piece.

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