Energy was high and humor flowed like good ale when performers in costume of Old England mixed with the audience at the San Quentin Protestant Chapel prior to the performance of two plays. The Shakespeare at San Quentin troupe held performances of Measure For Measure on May 12 and Richard II on May 19.
Like Hamilton, these characters from the deep past were brought to life with a modern twist of music and dance, plus lots of jokes and sword fights.
On Oct. 19 and 20 the actors will perform original skits based on the lessons learned in the Shakespeare plays.
As if under stage direction, the outside guests arrived and were greeted to the sight of a group photo being taken of the cast and crew. The inmate-performers mixed with professional members of the Marin Shakespeare Company, have been working twice weekly for months.
Measure For Measure deals with criminal justice, and its plot was summarized before the performance began. “How do we as a society determine what is moral, ethical and legal and what is not? How do we enforce the law? Duke allows Angelo to step in and enforce the laws while the Duke travels. Really he plans to watch how Angelo governs disguised as a monk,” said Suraya Keating, director of the play.
King Richard II was set up by Lesley Currier, echoing our current national politics. “Richard’s not a good king. His advisors are not experts, and even so Richard II won’t listen to them, therefore, he says things that he shouldn’t. Disputes are settled by force and justified by God’s will — the duel.”
“The power of the duel was right out of the movies with swords, tumbling and all sort of acrobatics,” said one guest.
If you were the king, what would happen if you lost everything?
“Programs like this make the prison safer for staff, inmates and are a true means of rehabilitation”
“The best things in life aren’t things,” was Keating’s takeaway from presenting this wonderful show. “Acting is 90 percent listening to others and ourselves” and the drama is what happens when we don’t really listen to each other. We seek to work with our performers to bring out this tension, said Keating.
The guests in the audience included the parents of Sara Sincell, who played Isabella. Her parents came from Maryland, as did her brother and sister-in-law, who also came to see the show.
“Programs like this make the prison safer for staff, inmates and are a true means of rehabilitation,” said Currier, who has organized such plays in San Quentin for 14 years.
This feeling was echoed by the actors.
“It set the tone for us by having the professionals perform with us. The physical humor was wonderful and helped me to understand the play,” said Eddie DeWeaver, who played the Warden in Measure for Measure.
“I used to wait for others to give me justice. By being able to see mercy (as a performer), I am able to give my younger self justice and peace,” said Jason Robinson, a South Central LA seventh-grade dropout grown into a Shakespearean actor in Measure for Measure.
“Make lemonade out of life. Whatever you believe about yourself, you can make come true. Imagine that,” said Belize Villafranco, who portrayed both the First Herald and Lord Willoughby in Richard II.
Performing before a live audience really makes a difference. “We humans often live in the past. Then we neglect to live in the moment. Acting brings your full attention to the moment,” said Jad Salem, who portrayed Sir Stephen Scroop in Richard II.
Most transformational was the admonition “Don’t own what you don’t create,” a realization that LeMar “Maverick” Harrison has gained through performing.
Juan Meza added, “I think about justice every day — is this what my victims wanted for justice? What about the youth that committed a crime? Did they have justice? Everyone wants justice — even that young man I was that committed the crime that sent me here.”
The performances were coordinated by the professionals of the Marin Shakespeare Company, which has sponsored Shakespeare at San Quentin since 2003. This organization has taken its San Quentin-learned process on the road and currently has programs launched or planned at eight California prisons.
Coming Oct. 19 and 20, 2017 at 10 am: Parallel Play: Original Theater Inspired by Shakespeare: autobiographical theater pieces written by the men of the SQ Shakespeare program.