Personal stories, comedians, singers and dancer entertained an audience made up of about 300 incarcerated men and 40 local volunteers late last December at the Prison University Project (PUP) annual open mic.
San Quentin State Prison’s Christmas decorations were still on display in the Protestant Chapel as more than two dozen inmates, who attend PUP classes, entertained the audience that included many of their teachers.
Jonathan Chiu (San Quentin News staffer) began the show with a standup monologue that about the PUP students who won a debate against a local college. Things turned serious when Chiu changed the topic to a recent academic conference held at the prison as well as the university’s collaboration with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to create ideas for criminal justice reform.
Chiu wandered the audience asking questions.
“How many times have you come into San Quentin and been mistaken for an inmate?” he asked PUP Coordinator Derrius Jones. “Like twice,” he said laughing.
Brian Asey showed a welcoming short documentary that explained the source of the event — B. Knowledge, a poetry instructor, brought in the idea nearly two decades ago.
Various acts reflected an appreciation to higher learning.
David Schiltz performed a comedic piece, Sketch on Algebra & Numbers.
“I’m a math addict,” Schiltz said as he told a series of jokes that referred to time reduction credits. “My favorite part of algebra was the pie chart,” he said. He rubbed his belly and said, “Marie Calendar has pretty good pies.”
Other acts reflected the power and insight gained from a higher education.
R. “Nephew” Bankston performed See What I See — an incarcerated person’s point of view referring to love and beauty throughout the prison grounds.
I see tears that won’t drop off the mask of elders who’ve been incarcerated longer than you and I been alive. I see trash, gun rails, faded signs and wonder if guys notice it too. I see men preserved, reserved, listen to, but not heard.
Delvon Adams performed Fatherless Child.
Life seemed much better when there was a role model in the house until my role model began to fade away and me becoming mad. Then, it felt comfortable doing things out of madness until I realized I had to be a better parent than the one that raised me. A father is there to provide, protect, teach, love and to never leave your side in any situation life brings you.
David B. Lê performed, A Moment Reconsidered. It is a very provocative personal essay about a 14-year-old boy’s encounter with an older girl. The audience members were on the edge of their seats, whooping and hollering at the tantalizing details that Lê gave about what was in his young mind. However, Lê made clear even though that moment stays with him decades later, it was more about the person, who he never saw afterward, than the moment.
There were acts that had a social justice message, while others were pure comedy.
Oran Artwork Hutson and Donald Rauch Draper performed Reluciadated, a satire that began by Draper bringing up a social justice idea such as peace or equality and having the thought end by Hutson saying, in dramatic form, conform or, “I will stab you.” After each exchange, the audience would erupt in laughter.
“The best way to get people to listen to a story is to make them laugh,” Hutson said. “You could tell the person the most horrible thing, and they’d listen, as long as you make them laugh.”
Stu Ross performed MiG — the comedic reading of a screenplay, based on an imagined observation. It brought chuckles through out the audience.
James Jenkins performed Is It Funny?
“Does God have humor?” Jenkins joked about passing gas in the small cells at San Quentin. He went on to joke about the art of passing gas and having other people blaming each other for doing it.
Many of the acts showed off musical talents.
Gregory “White Eagle” Coates and Courtney Rein performed a duet with Coates on wood flute and Rein on violin.
“Last year … it didn’t go too well with Susan Hirsch on banjo,” Rein said. Rein said that Hirsch asked her to redeem the act through her violin.
This year the combination between a free violinist and incarcerated flutist received a standing ovation after their well-polished exchange of trading short interludes and bursts that seemed like a conversation.
Eric Maserati-E Abercrombie performed Can’t Hold Me Back, featuring Phillipi “Kels” Kelly. About halfway into the performance, Kelly was led down the center aisle blindfolded with images of social justice figures taped to his blue shirt as the duo sang, “One day everything is going to change from feeling like a slave.”
After the performance, Kelly announced that he recently received a sentence commutation. He spoke about the social justice icons on his shirt and his responsibility to carry on their legacy.
“I never got good grades after grade school; however, with the help of PUP, I got my first A,” recording artist Jeffrey Atkins said before performing #1. “In here. I’m Free. This song is about all you guys, making yourself number one.”
Spoken word personal, essays and poetry were in abundance.
Richard “Rock” Lathan read a poem, Heaven Take Me There/Encouragement. The poem was written to honor the 36 lives lost in the Ghost Ship fire, but he said that it could honor anyone’s passing. He also read a letter that he wrote to himself about waking up and honoring his own life. “When you speak from the soul, the real power within you will exude,” the poem ended.
Kamsan Suon told a story, Uncharted Memories (Justice is Rape!) The dramatically told story vividly depicted his witnessing of the Cambodian Kumar Rouge genocide — “I feel the young boy’s tears, and I weep for them,” he said in closing.
Michael Mackey’s spoken work, All…For You was about respecting the efforts of incarcerated men.
Clark Rockefeller read, Opportunity, a sonnet.
“Who wouldn’t want opportunity to come one’s way?” Rockefeller asked before adding, “How many of us are in blue because of opportunity?”
Andrew Gazzeny’s One Man focused on resentments. “That’s not good,” Gazzeny said. “Why can’t you forgive?” he asked himself. “Nobody ever taught me how to forgive. I stand on the far end of life trying to find peace. Is it possible for the whole meaning of life is to forgive?”
Anthony Watkins read two poems about respecting people and being present in relationships.
Meredith Sadin: Why are we doing this? To honor the premier prison educational model in the world. She came to talk about her survey to study what is going on in the college program at SQ.
George “Mesro” Coles read Mesropiece Theatre. It told a fantasy story about a hero’s quest for redemption.
Derry “Brotha Dee” Brown performed Why I Write. The spiritually based spoken-word piece was performed passionately with pop-dance moves. The hook: I write to reveal light.
Aaron Taylor performed the rap “Paid in Full” by Rakim. The piece had the audience standing and singing along.
“Once I got my guitar, I got in tune with myself,” Tim Young said before playing Music From My Soul. The Latin/Salsa beat was smoothly played, had fingers snapping, hand clapping and heads bobbing.
James Vick read Forsaken in Paradise.
Osbun Walton read The Power Within. It was a remembering about his neighborhood and how “seeing a void, absent of joy and celebration that turned violent and disrespectful.” Walton reminded the audience that the power within is love.
Kevin Valvardi read Utopia. Valvardi said he wrote this piece for someone that he loves dearly. He also read Lights on the Horizon.
Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor performed Vintage Dance Therapy. Taylor’s break-dancing had the audience yelling “Go, Go, Go Markelle!” and “Hey, Hey Hey!”
Antwan Banks Williams closed the event with Look.
“The vulnerability and power of emotion to communicate truth is what stood out for me,” PUP teacher Courtney Rein said. “The Cambodian piece about the Rohmer Gouge genocide and Tim’s guitar — those moments welcomed the audience into their experience.”
Jill Azevedl, an English teacher, added, “Rauch is one of our students, and his performance was amazing; it was all really good and amazing.” It was her first time to a PUP Open Mic.
Music was provided by: Terry L. Slaughter, Bass; Aaron “Showtime” Taylor, Guitar; Jeffrey Atkins, Keyboard; Leonard “Funky Len” Walker, Bass.