In the crowded common area of the Fortune Society in Long Island City on Nov. 14, an audience takes in a performance of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Claudio, the male lead, has just found out that his wife-to-be, Hero, has slept with another man.
“Mmhmm,” a voice cries out. “Getting just what she deserves.”
The crowd laughs and even the actors are having a hard time keeping it together.
That makes it easy to forget that the entire audience is made up of formerly incarcerated men and women.
The Fortune Society, a nonprofit social service and advocacy organization, supports successful re-entry into society from prison and promotes alternatives to incarceration.
“What we really try to do is create a pathway and possibilities for these men and women who otherwise may not have realized the opportunities they have,” said Stanley Richards the senior vice president of programs for the Fortune Society.
While assisting former inmates in finding a job and home and getting a diploma are at the forefront of the society’s role, they acknowledge the importance of exposing clients to culture as well.
“Bringing theater to our folks allows their minds to drift just a little bit and show them the possibilities that exist in the theater world and what possibilities exist in their own world,” Richards said.
As part of the Fortune Society’s partnership with the Public Theater, clients were invited to watch the comedy that is touring the city to “bring free Shakespeare to audiences who have limited or no access to the arts.”
Many of their visits are to prisons, homeless shelters, centers for the elderly and other community venues.
But it’s not just about taking in a matinee performed by a stellar cast.
“We’re not just bringing them Shakespeare,” Richards said. “There are a series of workshops that happen before the play to teach them about the language and about the intent of the play.”
Donald Gray, a former inmate and drug addict, could not be happier with all the Fortune Society has provided him.
“They’ve helped me so much,” he said. “I’ve got my own place, a part-time job and I’m still going to school.”
Gray even participated in a Shakespeare program several months ago which gave him the opportunity to perform in Central Park.
“A lot of people don’t realize this but when we get out, we come home with nothing,” he said. “We have no foundation and the Fortune Society helps us make sure that there are a lot of doors open to us that wouldn’t necessarily be open.”
Gray is in pursuit of his GED and hopes to go on to study at Brooklyn College to become a counselor.
“I think I can give the young men and women some good advice,” he said. “I don’t want them to do what I did.”
Though the performance was over two hours long, the audience remained interested throughout.
The play chronicles two pairs of lovers: Benedick and Beatrice, who both proclaim their disdain of love; and Claudio and Hero, who are rendered speechless by their love for one another.
But it is the interactions between the guards — dressed identically to NYPD officers — that produced the most laughs.
Maybe it was the killer timing and comedic chemistry between head officer Dogberry, played by Lucas Rooney, and lawbreaker Borachia, played by Rosal Colon, or the fact that the audience could relate to the scenario but every time the pair had a row, the viewers were howling.
Though there are stigmas placed on people who have served time in prison, Richards and Gray say it’s never too late for someone to turn his life around.
“Our assumption is that people are doing the best they can from the time they walk through the door,” Richards said. “They think something different can happen and it’s our responsibility to make sure that those services that can make their dream happen are available to them.”
“I realized that I can’t change anything until I change that within myself,” Gray said. “I had to take off the mask of who I wanted to be and embrace who I am. Anyone can do it, you just have to embrace change.”