By Juan Haines
A diverse troupe of men, dressed as usual in prison blue, broke away from the everyday constraints of incarceration through the artistic expression of dance and dialogue.
San Quentin’s Artistic Ensemble put on its latest performance in the prison’s Protestant Chapel on Nov. 18 for an audience of about 150 that included the local community as well as fellow prisoners.
“In our explorations to discover how we can reach the public, we also discover more about what it means to be human by connecting with each other,” the program read. “Our creative process is dialogic. Together we explore social inequalities with language, sound and movement.”
With its song, dance and spoken word, Ways to Disappear, the Ensemble received a standing ovation.
After each performance, outside guests are invited to ask questions of the troupe.
Many of the questions focused on how, under the circumstances of incarceration, the prisoners created such a “quality performance.”
“We argue, we fight, but we come together,” prisoner Rodney “RC” Capell said. “It’s been a rollercoaster. It taught me how to have empathy for other people. We get together and write about our experiences, like feeling disappeared or invisible.”
Le’Mar “Maverick” Harrison told the outside guests, “This is not scripted. This is real life. The only thing Amie (Dowling) asked us to do was answer a writing prompt. We wrote about things we didn’t want anyone else to know. She helped us write about things that made us disappear ourselves.”
One outside guest, Clive, said, “I see a lot of professional stuff and I see a lot of crap,” which brought laughter. “I am deeply moved by the quality of what you put on the stage. I’d like to hear about past performances on the stage.”
Emile DeWeaver brought a laugh from the audience when he related acting to how he pretended to be a gangster when around his peers on the streets.
Michael McBride works with No More Tears, a violence prevention program in San Quentin. “I’m super blown away. I do a lot of work with No More Tears and mass incarceration. These offerings are not in every facility. Please talk about the value of these types of programs. What can we do to allow some of your comrades to have this kind of opportunity?”
Richie Morris has been incarcerated 32 years and spent 25 years in a maximum-security facility. “There was no opportunity to work out differences,” Morris said, referring to working with other ethnic groups. “This program gives men the chance to work out their differences. In the end, we are a band of brothers. There is only one race, that’s the human race.”
DeWeaver added, “What we do here is we build bridges from the inside to the outside. But you have to put the same effort into building bridges out there to in here. Donald Trump just got elected as President and high school students are walking out of school. They’re not waiting for people to offer answers; they’re storming the streets to find them. That’s the solution: stop waiting on solutions. We have to inconvenience ourselves, go out there and build solutions, be entrepreneurs of change.”
Antwan “Banks” Williams advised McBride and other outside guests to “witness the children as they are. Look at the children in their eyes and stare at their truth. Witness their lives. Let them know that it’s OK to be how you are, where you are. Until we are able to witness each other, a change is a long way away. The next time you are in the presence of someone you disagree with, witness their greatness.”
Rauch Draper added, “We are marginalized people. If you separate the fight of marginalization then you’re not doing the right thing. We have to celebrate diversity. We cannot separate the fight against marginalization.”
Outside guest Bob said, “I can’t tell you guys how you just blew me away. You talked about the outside relationship. How has this program helped your relationship with people who are not in this room?”
“It allows us to see each other in the other person,” Le’Mar “Maverick” Harrison said. “There’s no denial there’s a problem in the US. If we ever get to the point of seeing ourselves in each other, we can solve our problems.”
Outside guest Jason asked, “How much of the performance was therapeutic and how much is redemption from stereotypes?”
“It’s very therapeutic,” Rauch Draper said, “Up until this morning I wanted to karate chop everyone.” He added, “I’ve been incarcerated more than half my life, and I used to be a villain. For a long time I thought I could not change. I never thought. I don’t know how this affects you…” (Draper’s tears invoked audience applause)
“We need to teach our youth to go out and do your thing and have fun,” Chris Marshall Jr. said. “Don’t be stereotyped. This is what we do for each other inside. Do it for each other on the outside.” Marshall added, “The movements spoke more directly to issues than language.”
Rodney “RC” Capell said, “I had to get over my phobias. There were a lot of hands on me, and for me that’s an issue. Being in this situation, I had to be conscious of getting lifted. I tried to get away from the hands.”
The Artistic Ensemble is sponsored by the Insight Prison Project (IPP). IPP is committed to transforming the lives of those impacted by incarceration through programs that inspire reflection, compassion and accountability.
To learn more about the Insight Prison Project: www.insightprisonproject.org.