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For ex-inmates, Dante becomes a model for transformation

Lynda Gardner (left) and Deborah Ranger rehearse a play by Ron Jenkins (center) that mingles inmates’ stories with bits of “Divine Comedy.’’

STEVE MILLER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Lynda Gardner (left) and Deborah Ranger rehearse a play by Ron Jenkins (center) that mingles inmates’ stories with bits of “Divine Comedy.’’

Lynda Gardner, Saundra Duncan, and Deborah Ranger will give a reading of a new play at a Harvard University conference next week. A different kind of alma mater qualifies them for this appearance: York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., a high-security state facility for female offenders.

While behind bars at York, all three joined theater workshops with Wesleyan University professor Ron Jenkins and students from his Activism and Outreach Through Theater course. They got to know Shakespeare and Dante, and it changed their lives.

STEVE MILLER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Saundra Duncan said, “When I looked at Dante and saw how he was in exile . . . I saw a lot of that situation in [myself].’’

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“I spent my first six months [in York] trying to figure out ways to kill myself, and the next four and a half years trying to see how much more I can live,’’ says Gardner.

Inspired by these three and other inmates he worked with, Jenkins wrote a play about their existence behind bars, “To See the Stars,’’ which mingles inmates’ stories with bits of Dante’s epic 14th-century poem, “Divine Comedy.’’

The women have their own perspective on “Divine Comedy.’’ They tend to say that they are still working on its third part (Paradise) but that they are well versed in the first two (Hell and Purgatory).

“I’ve been in a lot of the circles of hell,’’ says Gardner, 63. “It really isn’t about hell; it is about hope. Climbing out of those circles.’’

The trio will perform “To See the Stars’’ on March 3 in a lightly staged reading at a Harvard conference on race, class, and education called Disrupting the Discourse: Discussing the “Undiscussable,’’ sponsored by the Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color. The Harvard performance is open to conference participants only, but the public can attend a free performance at Brown University’s Lyman Hall in Providence on March 2 at 3:30 p.m.

‘It really isn’t about hell; it is about hope.’

Lynda Gardner, on Dante’s “Divine Comedy’’
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Jenkins, who has a Harvard doctorate in theater and education, has focused his career on theater as a catalyst for social change. That has meant working in Italy with Nobel laureate Dario Fo (whose play “Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas’’ Jenkins directed at the American Repertory Theater in 2001) and running drama workshops in New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility and Indonesia’s Kerobokan prison. About five years ago, he started working with inmates in Connecticut.

“People in prison feel like they get erased from society, like they’re forgotten, and they’re in an environment that’s very dehumanizing,’’ Jenkins says. “Theater can be a great way to help humanize that environment and help people who are in the process of rehabilitating themselves and trying to transform themselves.’’

Dante is a particularly apt choice, he says.

“I wanted a text that focused on transformation . . . on how you get from a bad place in your life to a better place. And that’s what ‘Divine Comedy’ is about,’’ Jenkins says. “Of course, Dante himself was convicted of crimes and condemned to death, and exiled from his home, never to see his home and family again, when he was writing that poem. But he really redefined himself. We don’t remember him as a criminal condemned to death but as a great poet.’’

Gardner, of New London, Conn., says she was a typical soccer mom before a birthday trip to the Mohegan Sun casino led to a gambling addiction that, in turn, led to five years in York forlarceny and other offenses. She blames chemical exposure while working on the prison maintenance crew for the kidney cancer she battled after her 2008 release. But she also credits a prison drawing class for starting her new life as a pen-and-ink artist exhibited in local galleries. And she says Jenkins’s workshops changed her and other inmates.

“It opens up worlds for the women in [York]. It puts lights in their hearts,’’ she says.

Acting in “To See the Stars’’ shows her willingness to change and take risks, she says.

“I’m playing, like, a 29-year-old black girl who is in prison and has been raped and is pregnant, and there’s a rap part?’’ Gardner, who is of Native American descent, says with a laugh. “I have nine grandchildren, and you want me to do this? But it’s grown on me.’’

Duncan, 52, of Hartford, had a good job as a social worker and was living a comfortable life when she was drawn into a friend’s scheme, leading to her conviction on conspiracy and larceny charges and a three-year stretch in York. Now out for more than two years, she says she has been accepted to law school.

“When I looked at Dante and saw how he was in exile, and had to leave home, I saw a lot of that situation in [myself]. My goodness, here I am living in this wonderful, affluent neighborhood, and then I went to court and never came back home,’’ says Duncan.

Ranger, 46, of Willington, Conn., served nine years for larceny. Since her release 18 months ago, she has been working with Families in Crisis Inc., a Connecticut nonprofit, where she helps inmates, ex-inmates, and their families. She fell under the spell of theater when Jenkins introduced her to “The Tempest.’’

“I could make the connection,’’ says Ranger. “That’s what it feels like when you’re in prison: You’re on this uncharted island, and you’ve been put there because people don’t want to remember you.

“I know what it’s like to be exiled,’’ she adds. “I know what it’s like to be shunned.’’

Although the women had at least encountered Shakespeare in high school, Dante’s way with language was new to them. They credit Jenkins with coming at the work from many different angles, so that they would connect to the characters long before they were at ease with the original texts.

“I went, oh my God, all the thees and thous, I can’t do that,’’ says Gardner. “But he’d say, pick a character, and you make that character anything you want that reflects your life.’’ She chose Caliban, playing him as a misunderstood monster with a beautiful heart.

Jenkins says the inmates and students understand Dante better when they study it together: “The Wesleyan students might have more frames of reference in terms of the history and literature, but the people in prison have more frames of reference in terms of real-life experience.’’

Now the women are doing some teaching of their own.

“I’ve been working [with Jenkins] since I was released, and it’s just amazing that I can reach these freshmen and sophomores,’’ Gardner says. “When they’re going into the prison to work with the inmates there, I ask them, ‘What does an inmate look like?’ And they, of course, don’t know. And I make them stand up one by one, and I say, ‘You’re what inmates look like.’

“Most people have the misconception that most people in prison are monsters. We’re not,’’ she says. “We’re grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts. That’s what I try to get across to them.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

Because of a reporting error, a previous version of this column misidentified the city where Lynda Gardner lives.

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