Nineteen San Quentin men shared stories, music, dance and acting with a packed chapel audience to demonstrate how art has inspired transformative change and growth in their lives.
Packed into wooden pews in the Catholic Chapel were over 200 San Quentin men and 70 outside guests for the event, entitled Artistic Rebirth.
“The inspiration for this event is to give these men a voice for the public to hear, to showcase rehabilitation and the artistic value that people in prison have,” said Greg Eskridge, director/producer of Artistic Rebirth and radio reporter for KALW 91.7 FM.
The night’s program contained handcrafted necklaces of a heart enclosing a crucifix. The crosses represented Guadalupe Leon’s journey in prison.
“Making crosses has changed my life. It takes me about five to seven hours to complete a necklace, but it keeps my mind clear, it helps me to think about the person who receives the necklaces and it gives me a sense of self-worth.”
Co-hosting the event were comedian W. Kamau Bell and Rahsaan Thomas, staff writer for the San Quentin News.
“I came here to film an episode for my show on CNN, ‘The United Shades of America,’ several months ago and I became totally confused why these men are still in prison,” Bell said. “Take for instance my co-host, Rahsaan Thomas, who’s a great dude, good writer and thoughtful. We need more people like him in the outside world.”
Emile DeWeaver gave a personal testimony entitled “Renaissance.”
“ I believe in the power of art to the world because it changed mine. When I was a kid, my criminal behavior stemmed from me not understanding my emotional needs. Writing cleared the fog and connected me to the person I wanted to be, and that connection effected rebirth.” DeWeaver said.
Showcasing the eclectic talents available, performer George “Mesro” Cole found inspiration in a chemistry test while attending Patten University in San Quentin.
“There was an extra credit question on my exam that said, ‘Come up with a chemistry joke,’ ” Mesro said. “I desperately needed the five extra credits, and didn’t know what to do, but since I’ve been writing poems since I was 9, I figure I can write a sonnet about chemistry.”
“I turned in my paper and didn’t expect much until my instructor asked me to read it to the class,” Mesro said. “My classmates were blown away and could relate to what I wrote about finding personal identity; all the while using chemistry words.”
The sonnet is titled “Human Element.”
I wanted to shine like Magnesium
But my enthalpy was too low
So I tried to convert to helium
But my hydrogen was too slow
Visitor Naima Shalhoub’s performance of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” drew a standing ovation after leading an enraptured audience through thunderous handclaps and a sing-along to the chorus of “Hold on…hold on.”
“‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize’ is a song born out of the civil rights movement,” Shalhoub said. “In the context of prison, it is a spiritual song on freedom, not just external but internal freedom.”
Antwan “Banks” Williams used facial expressions and graceful movements to convey inner turmoil in a dance with Anouthinh Pangthong.
“I came from South Central L.A, where the culture didn’t value my art. In my brokenness, I held on to a being that wasn’t me,” Williams said.
“Doing what I want to do with art comes with a lot of shame in prison,” Williams said. “In San Quentin, I am embraced, I started to dress how I like, painted, and danced when my soul needed to be set free.”
Outside guest Emily Fayet remarked, “Watching Antwan really touched me. We’re the same age, and I could imagine putting myself in his place, which allows me to have more gratitude with my life through his story.”
Performer Amy Ho said, “Art transports us to a place that is magical, a place that doesn’t exist anymore. Art allows us to escape these walls, essentially.”
Adnan Kahn read from his composition “Wooden Sword”:
“The night I was arrested, I was processed in the county jail and was given a ‘fish kit’ that contained a miniature bar of soap, comb, toothpaste, and toothbrush, and oddly enough; a golf pencil.
“Standing in my cell, I felt so alone. I needed someone to talk to, but no one was there to listen. But there was two pieces of paper, so I began writing. I wrote about my pain, thoughts, and feelings; I wrote until my pencil went away. It was the first time I did that. When I finished, I was emotionally exhausted.”
“Fourteen years later, I still have those pages — colored paper, college-ruled, note pads, lunch bags — with therapeutic writing.”
Calling attention to the plight of women, Gino Sevacos and his band performed a song entitled “One Billion Strong.”
It was inspired by Eve Ensler, who began the One Billion Rising movement, which highlights “the devastating impact that violence and sexual abuse have on women and girls,” Sevacos said.
“One of the most haunting memories I have came from watching my father beat my mother in a drunken rage when I was 4 years old. It left a gaping wound that this song helped to heal,” Sevacos added.
Ralph “RB” Brown, 40, who suffers from night terrors, performed a spoken word entitled “Confession of a Lost Soul.”
“One night, I was choking out my wife in my sleep,” Brown said. “That’s when my wife gave me a journal from Tupac called ‘Concrete Roads,’ which inspired me to write out my thoughts. Since then, writing and performing has become a way for me to cleanse my soul, to do away with bad demons I have been dealing with.”
“It’s healing to share with people my experiences and what I went through,” Brown added.
The Artistic Ensemble performed a piece entitled “Can’t Have Nothing”.
“It is about what people can’t have in our society — the gender, educational, and housing inequality, as well as prison mass incarceration that exists in our society,” said Chris Marshall, Artistic Ensemble cast member.
Can’t ask for help / can’t get the benefit of the doubt / can’t be called by the name I want to be called / can’t sit in church / can’t have a nice day / can’t have a proper memorial / can’t have a proper burial…
Guest Carrie Hott said, “’Can’t Have Nothing’ was really poetic. I felt that there was a lot of poetry that I couldn’t articulate that was spoken.”
Another guest, Una Kinsella, said, “Some of the performances brought tears to my eyes, I’m leaving with a deep level of respect and admiration. The level of beauty, grace and humanity blew me away.”
Closing the night out to fading notes and somber tones of “I traded my youth for these prison blues…I’m looking through these prison bars, trying to carry on…”
Richie Dean Morris sang “Trying to Carry On”.
“What does my art mean to me? Simply put my music and performance is my medicine, my creative process. My writing has been a bridge to humanity,” said Morris.
Eighteen of the night’s performers are serving life terms.