There was standing room only in San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel on Feb. 28 to watch “John Brown’s Body”—a documentary about a play of the same name centered on Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1928 epic poem about slavery and liberation in the Civil War era.
The documentary premiered last year, but this was the first time that it was shown in San Quentin.
The play, directed by Joe De Francesco, was originally performed in the same chapel in 2002 for an audience of about 75 inmates and 200 outside guests, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
De Francesco was distraught when he noticed that Benet’s poem was no longer a part of the public school curriculum. He wanted to bring it back into the public forefront, and thought it could be performed effectively as a dramatic piece. He began working on a script in 1999.
Firstly, there were hurdles to be crossed before De Francesco could raise the curtain. He lacked actors, and more significantly, funding.
De Francesco tried all of his contacts in Hollywood, asking several famous actors to help him out, but to no avail. That’s when someone suggested that he go inside San Quentin to seek actors. The idea was a revelation, he said. Who else had a more in-depth take on racial strife and freedom?
But San Quentin, back in 1999, was a very different place than it is today. Black and white inmates generally did not willingly interact. So the prospect of even producing a theatrical performance centered on slavery, racism, and the American Civil War was far-fetched.
“San Quentin’s history is full of racial tension, race riots and murders; so much so, that there is a stretch of about 40 concrete stairs connecting the Lower Yard to the Upper Yard, that was once known to everyone as ‘Blood Alley,’” said inmate actor Nelson, “Noble” Butler.
When Francesco initially pitched the idea to the inmates, they met his proposal with incredulity. “I think every one of us in blue in that room looked first at each other, then at Joe like he was nuts,” said Butler. “Was this guy crazy? Wasn’t no way in hell was he gonna be allowed to put on a play dealing with the civil war, racism, violence, and most of all, any type of physical interaction with a female actress.”
But De Francesco was persistent. He never let the men’s doubt get the best of him, and after a while, his optimistic words of wisdom eventually had an effect on the inmates.
“Joe, being who he is, let it go in one ear and out the other. He kept saying it could work, it could work, it could work, if we just believed. I remember thinking that Joe had watched Peter Pan a few times too many with that ‘just believe’ crap,” said Butler.
“Joe took a special interest in each of us and changed us into a wonderful, special crew of actors that he called us his San Quentin Players,’” said inmate actor Carl Sampson, who was present at the screening. “Each of us played the other person’s script because we were always short players. We were able to cross the racial line to find the other members we needed.”
Progress was slow, as rehearsals were few and far between and the requisite actors were often absent. “We never knew who was going to show up from week to week,” said inmate actor Larry Miller in the documentary.
“It took us over two years of hard work, practicing and studying the script. We worked around many obstacles placed in our way to make the film,” said Sampson. “One of our hardest problems was finding inmates to work with us.”
But De Francesco, along with the men he directed, overcame all of the obstacles preventing him from making his vision reality. Not only does the 2002 performance of the play reveal this, but its continued relevance, as revealed by the coming of this documentary 11 years later, shows how this feat of dramatic performance will go on being a meaningful event to everyone who was involved with it.
“I feel like I have a tie with these men who stuck it out,” Francesco told the audience, still standing but without complaint or care, after watching the documentary.
“Joe De Francesco is visionary and groundbreaking,” said Lesley Currier, co-director of the Marin Shakespeare Project at San Quentin, who was present at the screening. “I’m constantly reminded of the intelligence that exists in this place.”
Sampson credits English professor Wendy Drucker for helping the inmates produce the play. In addition, he credits retired Warden Jeanne Woodford. “We are all appreciative and honored to have had such a committed set of staff members,” said Sampson.
According to KQED, in a review of the documentary, “In addition to the expected (and gratifying) testimony that participating in a play made a difference to the inmates, ‘John Brown’s Body’ allows the viewer to see the humanity in murderers.”
“De Francesco’s film focuses on the preparation, performance and aftermath of this life-changing event as current and former inmates reflect on what it meant to be plucked from the monotony of life behind bars and given the opportunity to express themselves on stage about issues of race and liberty,” according to The Marin Interfaith Council. “Absorbing and emotionally charged, ‘John Brown’s Body’ at San Quentin Prison illuminates the undeniable connection between creative freedom and spiritual fulfillment.”
But perhaps more important than these reviews about what the documentary reveals to those on the outside, is what the play meant to those who actually partook in it 12 years ago.
“Joe, you gave us something no one could ever give us and something no one could ever take away,” said Butler.
- Larry Miller
- Carl Sampson
- Nelson “Noble” Butler
- Ernest Morgan
- George Lamb
- J.B. Wells
- Jeff Golden
- Ronin Holmes
- Marcus Lopes
Female parts read by:
- Blancett Reynolds
- The Pacific Mozart Ensemble