Shakespeare Play a Hit with Prison Audience

By Rahsaan Thomas
Staff Writer

A Court Jester’s comical version of the Harlem Shake dance and audience participation revamped Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It,” making it a hit with the San Quentin State Prison audience.

“I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at a Shakespeare play, and I’ve been to a lot of them,” said Samantha Armacost, a visiting audience member.

“As You Like It” is a comedy/romance/musical play about the exiled Duke Senior (Azraal Ford) finding more happiness in the simple life than his insatiable little brother, Duke Fredrick (Jessie James Smith), who cheated Senior out of land and wealth.

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This version preformed inside the San Quentin Protestant chapel had several unique twists that made the Shakespearean language relatable to a captured audience.

Antwan “Banks” Williams, who played Jacques, said, “We have never seen a Shakespeare play outside of us. We created our own back-stories; we made it accessible, a more urban version.”

Touchstone (Adnan Khan), fitted with a multi-colored jester hat, delivering his lines in a Kermit the frog voice and doing an alternate shoulder-shaking dance kept laughter flowing from the audience.

Director Suraya Keating added, “Everybody really embraced their own character in a new way. I’ve never seen a version of ‘As You Like It’ like this, and it was hilarious.”

Other new twist to “As You Like It” included musician Amiens (Richie Morris) performing several original compositions on his guitar.

Also, actors Belize Villafranco, Morris, Williams and Edmond Richardson invited four audience members on stage to dance. Then Williams, playing the role of Jacques, rapped “DucDane” while stepping.

When someone asked Jacques what is DucDane, Jacques called everyone on stage at the time into a huddle to tell them, “DucDane is an incantation to call fools into a circle.”

Keating says she came up with the audience participation idea in collaboration with Williams.

The San Quentin version of “As You Like It” included other touches like the beat to Tupac’s Hail Mary playing every time Duke Frederick headed for the stage, and Adele’s “Hello” introducing another scene.

“I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare national productions, and this was by far the best,” said Brad Burkhart, who came from Santa Cruz with his wife to see the play.

“You guys breathed a whole lot of life into Shakespeare and made it accessible,” said Amad Jackson, an actor who was in the audience.

For the incarcerated actors, a “big part of the program is healing through the arts,” said Marin Shakespeare Company’s managing director Lesley Currier, who edited the San Quentin production of “As You Like It.”

Emile DeWeaver, who played Sylvius, said, “Drama therapy help me to stop hiding my emotions. Hide them long enough and it makes you anti-social. A lot of things happen in drama therapy that help us get back social tools people take for granted.”

Williams added, “Prison is filled with characters. Drama therapy teaches there is a back-story to everyone.”

Alex Goldsmith, who played Celia, remembered Khan being nervous when he first preformed in a previous show. She credits drama therapy with helping him and the other men break out of their shells.

“And now he’s (Khan) the star of the show,” said Goldsmith. “You see who men truly are … they break down barriers. You don’t get that on the outside; men being vulnerable and opening their heart, and it’s very inspiring.”

Men of all races and ages came together to make the production a success, including young newcomers David Silva and Kory Morse.

During a question and answer segment after the show, Morse said, “I got suckered into this. A friend asked, ‘Do you want to go to this class?’ I show up, and it’s an acting class. It helped me interact with people, build bonds with people, build a memory with people that we’ll never forget.”

Andrew Wadsworth, who played Charles the wrestler, said, “I have a thug look, and I have thug in me because that’s how I grew up. My insecurities made me think people didn’t believe in me. I said I’m showing them. I give praise to my grandma. She was the only person who believed in me, and when she died … she knew I had a lot of good in me. She’s been gone since 2009, I do everything in her name.”

“Healing doesn’t happen alone. It happens in communities of support,” said Suraya.

To see the play online, go to www.marinshakespeare.org and follow the social justice links.

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