The world proved wide enough for San Quentin prisoners and the San Francisco production of Hamilton to come together as one community.
At the invitation of SQNews adviser Jan Perry, members of the cast and crew welcomed the June 21 opportunity to take a quick tour of the prison while getting acquainted with some of its incarcerated residents.
“Their visit totally enlightened me,” said SQ tour guide Ron Ehde, incarcerated for the last 23 years. “They opened my eyes—not just to how important the arts are—but really just how open and friendly the theater arts community is. I was blown away by their warm-hearted spirit.
“These people are like tree huggers for humanity.”
For performer Donald Webber Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, coming to San Quentin underscored the many doors opened to him through starring in Hamilton.
“You get a chance to see things you never thought you’d see,” Webber told SQNews. “Being a part of Hamilton, I feel so lucky.
“The show changes people who come to see it—makes them want to change the world.
“We’re telling a story—an old story—but to this day it’s one that people easily can parallel to their own lives.”
“I left feeling incredibly humbled. I was shocked by my ignorance”
Multiple institutional alarms punctuated the Hamilton folk’s already abbreviated two-hour visit. As incarcerated men in blue obeyed numerous “Alarm— yard down” commands from prison loudspeakers, the reality of incarceration became more vivid.
The parallels between Burr’s legacy and the incarcerated community are not lost on Webber.
“The most famous thing Burr ever did was kill another person,” he said. “He should’ve known the world was wide enough for both him and Alexander Hamilton, but he ended up letting jealousy and anger turn into the biggest mistake of his life.”
Webber described the great duality that’s at the center of his stage character. “Before the show starts, we all know pretty much what Aaron Burr did. We know him as the vil- lain, the bad guy—a really evil person.
“The course of the show gets people to see his more human qualities. Yes, he act- ed badly, and that ruined the entire rest of his life, ruined his legacy, his family name.
“All in all, people connect deeply with our portrayals and realize at the end of the show that it’s okay to dis- agree—just don’t let all that fester into hate.
“That’s such a relevant message for today’s societal issues. The world is wide enough to include everyone.”
Antwan Williams, who’s been incarcerated for 13 years, said he had two memorable conversations, one with an actor and one with a crew member.
“I felt really comfortable and valued in my humanity because none of their questions stemmed from my worst decisions,” said Williams. “They came in and they see us as people. That’s what I did, too—I wasn’t star struck.”
Williams particularly felt connected when one person opened up to him about an incarcerated relative who had died behind bars.
“This person said the man did a lot of time and passed away from an illness while he was still incarcerated,” said Williams. “Afterwards, the system ended up sending his mother the medical bill.
“It makes you think about the available quality of healthcare. Did his illness go untreated because it took so long for them to look at it?
“That’s a part of their life this person might not have shared with just anybody.”
Actor Rick Negron plays King George. As everyone— prisoners and outside guests alike—went around introducing themselves, Webber yelled out during Negron’s turn, “That man was in Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ video!” which brought a chorus of healthy laughter.
Negron, a dancer on Broadway back in the ’80s, said it’s true.
“Michael was a strange guy, super shy. But when the cameras came on and it was time to perform—he turned into a whole ’nother person,” Negron told SQNews. “I realized later he must have been an abused child, who needed his art as an outlet.”
During his SQ introduction, he spoke about the powerful relationship between rehabilitation, change—and the arts.
“I’ve seen throughout my career that art can truly be a healing medicine for all,” said Negron. “And we see it every night when we perform Hamilton. The show’s mes- sage revolves around communicating and changing people’s minds.”
Because one of the alarms interrupted an interview question mid-sentence, Negron later graciously sent a written response: “The visit to SQ was a mind blowing and eye opening experience. The complexity of the institution and the population changed my perceptions.”
Like Webber, he under- stands the dualities involved in playing a multilayered role and reflected on the question of King George: “Unfortunately, he started exhibiting bouts of mental illness. How- ever, it didn’t really hamper him until much later in his life,” said Negron.
“In the show, it’s easy to make him a two dimensional buffoon, but I’ve tried to make him relatable and empathetic.”
Part of their brief tour included a stop at SQ’s in- famous “dungeon”—where prisoners were once left in total darkness for days with only three buckets to keep them company—one for water, one for food and one for excrement.
SQN staff writer Aron Kumar Roy, who’d never seen this part of the facility before, ventured back into the dungeon’s deepest corners—an area devoid of any outside light. Overwhelmed by the total darkness, his mind filled with visions of the inhumanity that place represents, Roy suddenly felt anxious, agitated and uncomfortable.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” he said.
Assistant Company Manager Crystal Clayton overheard Roy and visibly noticed his distress. “Come on, let’s get you some fresh air,” she said, touching his elbow ever so briefly in a guiding gesture toward sunlight. “It’s gonna be alright.”
“It struck me how much she cared for my wellbeing,” Roy said later. “Something like that shouldn’t be out of place, but in here—I guess it still is.”
Adamu Chan has been in- carcerated for 10 years. He said it was easy to see the Hamilton group’s genuine communal nature.
“I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of outside people here,” said Chan. “And it seems like those in the arts community just come in with a different perspective. You know—they’re more progressive.
“You could really tell that they were consciously trying to understand what life is like here—what our experiences are like.”
Chan spent a little time speaking with Production Stage Manager Kimberly Fisk. “She said her family worried about the possible dangers waiting for her, coming into San Quentin, into a prison setting,” Chan said. “That was difficult for me to hear in certain ways, because of all the people I know in here who are not dangerous.
“But by her just being here—and being comfortable and safe enough to tell me that—these kinds of interactions are important for us to have, especially as we (the incarcerated) gain more and more of a voice.”
Another alarm went off as the Hamilton tour exited South Block’s chow hall, leaving prisoners stranded on the ground as the visitors headed back to the outside world.
“Bye guys, we’ll see you later,” waved Fisk and others. They may have meant that literally, too.
Actor Marja Harmon later sent her own written response back to the SQ community: “I left feeling incredibly humbled. I was shocked by my ignorance and assumptions of the prison system, environment, and its citizens,” she said. “I didn’t have any idea of what to expect other than what’s been depicted on TV/film.
“I didn’t know I would experience such openness and so many smiles…I regret how many conversations were cut short, but I know they will be continued. I look forward to seeing you all again.”
Pending scheduling conflicts, SHNSF (Shorenstein Hays Nederlander San Franscisco) Director of Communications Scott Walton hopes to bring Hamilton and SQ together again—potentially in an even bigger way. That remains to be seen.