It was a true reality play, featuring mothers of murdered children and men serving time in prison for murder.
The play was produced by No More Tears, a violence- and crime-intervention group that conducts weekly workshops and healing circles teaching conflict resolution, changing mindsets, and developing successful reentry tools.
This two-part play focused on the impact violent crime has on neighborhoods throughout America.
The original play Till You Know My Story was performed Feb. 23 at San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel for an audience of more than 150 community members, volunteers, media outlets, and San Quentin prisoners.
“Till You Know My Story came out of the experience of No More Tears working with The Healing Circle of San Francisco over the past five years to find healing between survivors and perpetrators of violence,” said Lonnie Morris, co-writer of the play. “The play took two years to develop. This process included prisoners and outside community actors, director Molly Noble and playwright Kenn Rabin telling the story of healing and redemption.”
Till You Know My Story tells the story of the fictional character Jamal, whose life is interrupted by the criminal justice system, mainly because of his own faulty thought process.
The play’s cast included men convicted of violent crimes and community actors portraying the parents of murdered children.
The performance ended with actual parents of murdered loved ones telling a room full of convicted criminals how they feel about their loss.
“My son was only 17 when he was killed, and the person who killed him is still walking around free,” one mother sobbed. “I want his killer to spend a year in prison for every year my son was alive.”
Killers voiced prison life as a place that estranged them from their families and society, driving home the pain of losing loved ones through either violence or to the criminal justice system.
“Playing Jamal made me look at my life and how similar our paths have been,” said Nythell “Nate” Collins, who played the leading role. “It made me realize that although victims and victims’ survivors have a story, so do I.”
Their emotional dialogue was painful to listen to, said one audience member, as the silence between lines was punctuated with hands wiping tears away.
The performance repeatedly begged police to do more about curbing violence, and chastised street thugs for permitting injustice to define the streets.
“The play invokes a great amount of empathy in me, because of the strength that the outside actors had to have to tell their stories to an audience of strangers,” said prisoner Curtis Penn. “It made me reflect on my own life, and that of my children.”
The second act began with all the cast singing about how peace would create a safer community.
However, reality crept into the play. Scenes intermittently flashed into courtrooms, interrogations, sentencing, prison life, and the reality of victimization by violent offenders who cycle in and out of the criminal justice system.
The prisoners stood center stage and gave details about their transformative journey from victimizers to compassionate human beings.
“Men like me who’ve committed crimes have to be heard because healing begins when both victims and perpetrators can share their stories to gain understanding,” said Collins.
Getting past the misconception about those who kill, the families of those who were killed, and crime and punishment captivated the atmosphere.
The dialogue seemed reality based and hit points that brought out the impact of victimization, healing circles, and what transformation feels like.
The play also focused on how perpetrators of violent crime is generational—sons followed the path of their fathers, which emitted a feeling of gloom and doom for those who could not shake the grip of past mistakes, leading them to the doors of prison—a dangerous place to live or die.
Survivors of violent crime said they wanted something out of this interaction between victims of violent crime and prisoners—justice.