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  • Prison Performing Arts

Laertes Word - My Reformation Through Shakespeare

Updated: May 26, 2022

James Word has been acting all his life; he just didn’t know it – that is, until he’s cast in his first play – while serving a 30-year sentence at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. Laertes Word is the story of how Hamlet changed his life.

Laertes Word, the first solo storytelling piece by James Word, is a story of tragedy and redemption; of a man who spent much of his young life trying to be many things to many people, seeking to fit in, and becoming utterly lost. Until one day, when he walks out of the prison yard and into the role of Shakespeare's "Laertes." The performances on June 4th and 5th at the Centene Center in St. Louis are the world premiere of the show.

"My involvement in theatre taught me discipline and a sense of pride I had never known before. It boosted my self-worth and made me want to learn more about myself." - James Word

James is an artist and storyteller based in St. Louis. His mission is to help people understand that it’s never too late: they can change their life for the better and live a joyful life that they can be proud of. This is his first collaboration with PPA as a returning citizen.

James Word and Chris Harris
Chris Harris and James were in Hamlet together at MECC and both featured on This American Life.

While working with Prison Performing Arts, James performed as Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, as Caliban in The Tempest, and in an original work written and performed by prisoners titled Doing Time.

James' first time acting on stage was as Laertes in Acts IV and V of Hamlet. (In 2002, this production was the subject of an episode of NPR's This American Life titled “Act V.”) He credits Agnes Wilcox and PPA with changing his life.


In addition to his theatre work with PPA, James worked to improve many aspects of his life while he was in prison. Inside, he earned his GED and became an educational instructor for the NAACP. He also created a marriage-support group where he designed and led communication and relationship-strengthening modules and workshops.

In May 2010 James was released and started his life as a returning citizen. He took up the study of Human Services and founded a non-profit focused on improving financial literacy for low-income earners. He is also a lead facilitator at the St Louis Community Release Center, teaching general life skills like goal-setting, good choices, and responsible thinking for his fellow returning citizens.

This is James' first solo performance piece, and he assembled an incredible production team of professional theatre-makers to help execute his artistic vision. Nick Ryan of the New York-based theatre company, the Coldharts, is the dramaturg and script advisor, and Rachel Tibbetts, Artistic Director of PPA, is directing.

"I am passionate about telling my story and I believe that if I can help just one person then it is worth all my hard work. I want to help people to understand that it’s never too late: they can change their life for the better and live a joyful life that they can be proud of." - James Word

For tickets to the St. Louis performances of the show, follow this link.

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