The Hebrew prayer sung by Julian Glenn Padgett rang through the auditorium just inside San Quentin State Prison’s gates. It opened Padgett’s performance that included songs such as “My Girl” by The Temptations, sung to a swaying crowd, and a performance in which he told his childhood memories to a tearful audience.
At age 5, Padgett’s mother enrolled him in ballet. At 7, he shot a gun at his stepfather after watching him beat his mother unconscious. At 41, Padgett sang to his dying mother by telephone from within prison walls after she informed him of his sister’s sudden death.
Padgett, 48, is serving 32 years to life at San Quentin State Prison on charges of arson, burglary, car theft and first-degree murder.
He was among 10 San Quentin inmates who brought some 200 people — fellow inmates and audience members from outside the prison — to laughter and tears Sept. 7 when they performed stories about their past in “Parallel Play: Original Theater Inspired by Hamlet.” Themes included love, betrayal, revenge and abandonment, feelings that resonated with the prisoners and audience members alike.
“In prison you have to wear a mask,” said Padgett, who goes by the name of Luke in prison. “I told myself that it’s OK to be open. It’s OK to bring these memories up and ride the dragon, as my sister would say. I was able to ride the dragon and it was rough.”
Produced by the Marin Shakespeare Company, the performance was directed by Suraya Susana Keating with assistance from Lesley Currier, founding managing director of Marin Shakespeare.
“They are so intelligent and have so much depth of feeling,” Keating said. “They are brave, they are honest and they are entertaining.”
In addition to beckoning cheers from fellow inmates, the performance embodied themes that reflected human emotions that moved visiting audience members and prisoners alike.
“When I’m sad or depressed, I can feel very alone,” Novato resident Henry Frummer, 61, told the performers. “Your stories penetrated that. I’ll never feel alone again.”
Frummer, a host of a zen group at San Quentin, said the vulnerability of the performance evoked his emotional response.
“This play literally changed my life,” he said. “I can’t look at my tragedies the same ever again.”
Prisoners in the audience expressed appreciation for the performance, sharing similar experiences of difficult childhoods and life experiences.
Samuel Hearnes, 34, serving a sentence of 25 to life for second-degree murder, watched the performance to support his friends and find connections between “Hamlet,” the prisoners’ stories and audience members.
“I’m hoping that people will understand the experiences that led us to get here,” Hearnes said. “I hope people see the humanity that still exists within us.”
–This copyrighted story is reprinted with the permission of the Marin Independent Journal.
Here are some quotes from the actors and audience:
LESLIE CURRIER, assistant managing director of Marin County Shakespeare Co.—“All of the men acted in Hamlet earlier this year. The parallel play is autobiographical stories written by the actors in Hamlet, which is part of the S.Q. Shakespeare Project. All these men have depth of character. They can relate to their characters in their own lives. The guys selected these stories because there’s a need for them to come out. The themes they chose from Hamlet are love, abandonment, imprisonment of the mind, and others.”
JOHN NEBLITT—“We’ve been rehearsing seriously for the past three months. I also have an appearance in the introduction and in Angelo’s piece. My personal piece is about life circumstances of my crime, also regarding mixed feelings of ‘mother love,’ which was inspired by my character King Claudius, Hamlet’s stepfather. It’s about love and repentance.”
LAURIE BROOKS, from the William James Association, primary supporter of the Arts in Corrections program. — “We have a wonderful, thriving program here at S.Q.” A.I.C. program was started in 1977 with the William James Foundation. The pilot program started at CMF until the state took over the program about 1981. “I’ve been with the program for the last two years.”
KIMINI RANDALL—“This play (Forgiveness) is based on the first time I felt betrayed by my mother.”
JONATHAN WILSON—The Search for Love—“This is a story about my feelings of betrayal. All I know is that I’ve always felt alone as a little boy. Even surrounded by 1,200 men, I still feel alone all the time. How could someone who always had everything else have nothing that he really needed? Why did they (my mother and father) both have to lie to me? If I have learned anything, I’ve learned that loving someone who may hurt you is trusting that they won’t.”
JOHN NEBLETT—Rain Enough—Acted out his part in a song about empathy.
TRISTEN JONES—Because I Said So—About being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Had the entire audience laughing. “It left me so unprepared for life that I wasn’t able to handle it when I was out on my own. I asked myself, ‘How did I get here?’ The answer was, ‘I’m an idiot.’”
ANGELO FALCONE—Betrayal—His story was a short, Hamlet-style play about betrayal by his wife.