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As opening night nears, the cast members increasingly refer to one another by the names of their characters.
Cox knew that he'd have to overcome a modicum of skepticism. To start, he led the group in a reading of Macbeth, stopping line by line to translate the unfamiliar language into everyday speech. He started out of order, with the monologue of the drunken Porter who muses on the effects of alcohol while staggering through Macbeth's castle to answer a knock at the gate.
"I did it to hook 'em," Cox admits, "because it's all talking about boners and stuff, about getting drunk, and it's a bunch of dick jokes. They love it. As a teacher, I try to demystify everything. I'm very casual, very real, very comfortable with everything [they] could possibly need to bring up."
When it was time to cast parts, Brian Betts was an easy choice for the title role. He stands 6 feet 1 inch, with cornrows and an easy smile. He's affable and humble and carries himself with the loping grace of an athlete. Most importantly, he's willing to take on Macbeth.
Before his conviction, Betts lived in the Quindaro neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, where residents are fiercely proud of its history as a stop on the Underground Railroad between slave-state Missouri and free-state Kansas.
"I loved it," Betts says. "It was nice. I seen it go through a major transformation when the drug epidemic hit, you know. It was like, it went from being peaceful to violent overnight. But it was still home; it was still beautiful."
Betts is serving 25 years to life for the murder of a Quindaro resident shot 18 times with a shotgun and a rifle in the early morning of December 29, 1997. He was one of only four cast members "cleared" by prison officials for interviews with The Pitch. (Prison staff first asks victims if they'd object to an inmate appearing in a newspaper story; prisoners not granted consent can be identified only by their first names.)
Learning Macbeth's lines has been a pleasant distraction, Betts says. One of his favorite passages:
I have liv'd long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
"I've felt, in my situation, like, 'Why is this happening to me?' " Betts explains. " 'Is it meant for my life to be cursed? Is it meant for me to not have a family and be free?' So I can really relate to that." He pauses, nodding. "I can really relate to that one, right there."
After rehearsals began, Betts encouraged his friend Vaughn to join the cast. Vaughn, 45, first met Betts 15 years ago in county jail while both were awaiting trial.
Vaughn is built like a linebacker — 5 feet 10 inches, 273 pounds — but he speaks with quiet, polite reserve. "He [Betts] was like, 'Hey, man, I know you. I know you can do it. Come on in here.' "
So Vaughn went to a rehearsal, and Cox asked him to take the part of Lady MacDuff, a small role that, once introduced, is promptly killed off by Macbeth's assassins in Act 4.
"I was like, 'Aww, I gotta be a woman, right out of the gate?'" Vaughn says, grinning. "But it's no problem. I don't have hang-ups about that."