Art often imitates life, and when executed well, an audience is able to draw connections between the performance and reality through the power of the narrative. On Oct. 4, the original prison production of Waterline did just that.
Waterline is an interpretative performance utilizing modern dance and dramatic monologue. Based on the life stories of five prisoners, Waterline was performed by the Artistic Ensemble, a drama therapy group of 14 men at San Quentin. Prior to the play’s debut, these men collaborated to write, choreograph and produce this piece of art. It brought the audience to a standing ovation at its finish.
The directors helped the men to tell their stories by first having them workshop their written stories. At the time of the writing workshop, Anouthinh Pangthong, an actor in Waterline, said he didn’t know it was going to turn into something bigger.
“With the creative vision of the directors, our stories became woven together over an eight-month period,” said Pangthong.
The directors guided the men in choreographing and turning their stories into a performance worth viewing.
The production was not without its challenges. “There were some creative differences that arose, but at the end of the day, we put our egos aside and made it work,” Pangthong admitted.
During rehearsals, the troupe of actors would break up into groups to go over lines after warm-ups, which included tongue-twisters, movement exercises, improvising and a lot of laughing, according to Pangthong.
“Waterline was one of the most moving things I’ve seen since I arrived at San Quentin,” said Dwight Krizman.
The sound of rain greeted viewers as they took their seats in the Protestant Chapel at San Quentin. More than 60 citizens and 100 prisoners crowded into the building to watch the production.
At the start of the show, the actors lay in fetal positions. “It quenches our thirst and aids in our birth,” a voice narrated to the sound of the rain. The image of water was present in most of the scenes as a figurative thread to help tie the stories together. In several respects, water served as a metaphor for life in all its forms, both stagnant and fast-paced.
Throughout the play, different life stories were woven into the production in a seamless fashion.
One cast member led each story, accompanied by the movements of the other actors.
Carlos Meza, who performs under the name “Losdini,” commanded the audience’s attention as he walked in a serpentine manner stepping on pieces of white paper placed at his feet by the other actors. At the end of his movement, he said: “I am not what I was. I am aware. I am.”
Meza explained that the white papers symbolize the endless court documents that often dictate the direction of prisoners’ lives behind bars.
Later on in the show, Pangthong narrated his life story as a Laotian refugee. His story mirrored that of Kroung Songkra, a Cambodian refugee who paroled in 2014 prior to the performance. Meza played Songkra in his life depiction.
Both Pangthong and Songkra’s stories told of generational trauma, the repercussions of tragic experiences passed from one generation to the next. Songkra’s mother was forced to watch the Khmer Rouge eat her own father’s heart, a scene that was depicted in the play. Pangthong told the story of his pregnant mother crossing a river in a bicycle inner-tube in hopes of providing her son with a better life on the other side.
Their life stories circled back to their own births, which were depicted through dance. Some audience members shed tears as they witnessed the reenactments of these two men’s births.
The show ended with the story of Rodney Capell imagining his release from prison after 25 years of incarceration. “I wonder if, after a quarter century, a quarter-pounder with cheese tastes the same,” Capell laments.
The statement provoked thought: What else has this man missed out on in 25 years of incarceration?
The Insight Prison Project, a restorative justice program and nonprofit, sponsors the Artistic Ensemble inside the walls of San Quentin.
According to a statement in the front of the Waterline program, “The Artistic Ensemble is a rigorous, creative practice at San Quentin Prison where participants develop artistic tools with which to explore personal journeys and their intersection with systemic forces of poverty, violence, power and incarceration.”
Waterline director Amy Dowling said the group did not initially intend to produce a public performance.
“When we first met, we were not moving towards a performance. We spent time talking, writing, and discussing issues,” Dowling said. “In the end, the stories that got told are the ones the men wanted to be heard.”
Cast members included Adnan Khan, Anouthinh Pangthong, Antwon William, Carols Flores, Chris Marshall, Sr., Eric Lowery, Garey Martin, Gary Harrell, Gino Sevacos, Ira Perry, JulianGlenn Padgett, Losdini, Nate Collins, Neiland Franks, Richie Morris, Rodney Capell and Upumoni Ama. Directors included Amie Dowling, Freddy Gutierrez, Tatiana Chaterji and Sebastian Alvarez.