WNPR

Connecticut Inmates Emerge From Dante's Inferno

Dec 8, 2015

Dante's painful journey through the nine circles of hell in "Dante’s Inferno" defies description: "If I had verses harsh and grating enough to describe this wretched hole…"

Yet this is the most alluring section of the "The Divine Comedy," in the most enduring poem of all time. Dante Alighieri was a 14th century poet and politician who wrote his epic poem about sin and redemption upon his permanent exile from his beloved city of Florence.

To escape his personal hell, Dante imagined a journey through the afterlife, through the pits of hell and up the long climb of purgatory to paradise. He took with him Virgil, a spirit guide who forced him to confront his sins and forgive his humanity on his journey toward enlightenment. Only then would he be free.

Ron Jenkins, a professor of theater at Wesleyan University and Yale Divinity School, knows well the story of Dante. He recently joined WNPR's Colin McEnroe Show to talk about the transformative power of Dante and theater.

Since his visit, Jenkins has spent several months with inmates at Suffield's MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution who know the despair of exile; they’ve left their homes, their lives and society.

With students from Yale, he’s helped them imagine Dante’s journey from hell to paradise as it applies to their own experience through adaptations of fragments in Dante’s "Divine Comedy."

One inmate works through the rage he feels within the cage of his imprisonment:

Well my father left me at an early age, sending me in an early rage, some of the reasons that i’m in this cage - and you’re telling me God knew all this?

Another questions the justice of it:

Is this justice, or is this just ice? Only one who has knowledge of self can serve justice. Just is the reward, and ice is the penalty. When one is penalized he or she is served with just ice, meaning to be frozen in a mental state of thirty-two degrees below zero.

Listen below to five prisoners perform their own words to "Regina Caeli," an ancient Latin hymn that Dante hears in paradise, performed here by students from Yale University. Following the men's words is a passage, "You were not meant to live like brutes but to follow virtue and knowledge," arranged by Jennifer Donelson, Saint Joseph's Seminary. It is sung in Italian to the melody of a Gregorian chant.  

Yale University students will perform the words of inmates this Saturday, December 12, 3-5 pm, at the Marquand Chapel, 409 Prospect Street, Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, in New Haven. The event is free and open to the public. The second performance will be Monday, December 14, 6 pm, at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo, 24 W. 12th Street, New York City.