Inmate Nythell “Nate” Collins, 40, said acting lessons from Marin Shakespeare Company have helped him understand the human condition of oppression.
“How did he come up with all this stuff?” Collins asked about Shakespeare. “What was his thought process so his work stayed with us all these years, especially with relationships? Shakespeare was a visionary.”
Dozens of Bay Area community members, along with more than 200 inmates and prison staff, came to the chapel at San Quentin State Prison on May 27 to enjoy “The Tempest: A Tribute to Prince.”
Collins has been at San Quentin since 2008 and has been a member of Shakespeare at San Quentin since 2010. He was Prospero in “The Tempest.”
“Prospero was really manipulative in how he used Ariel to do his mischievous business, but in the end, he learned how to forgive,” Collins said. “It took the people around him to talk to him and change him, just like here with the programs. Everyone has the ability to change into kind and caring people. But, until we cultivate the good things in us, we can’t prosper from it.”
Steve Emrick, San Quentin community partnership manager, said inmates learning Shakespeare produces a public benefit.
“Examining the characters in the plays allows the men to understand their own crimes and the dynamics of their own character,” Emrick said. “For men to be in prison and to put themselves out like that in front of their peers shows they’ve learned a better persona, one better than the gang or tough-guy persona common in prison,” he added.
The music for the play was scored by inmate LeMar “Maverick” Harrison.
“A lot of us had last-minute changes in our character,” Harrison said. “I wasn’t going to play the part of Ariel as Prince until he died.”
Harrison said his inspiration came from inmate Christopher Marshall, Sr., who played King Alfonso of Naples.
“Shakespeare helps me get in touch with my humanity,” Marshall said. “My character’s main objective is to find his son. In doing so, he comes to the realization that he needs to let those around him advise him, just like I’ve done in my life. I have to trust those around me that they’ll never lead me astray.”
Prior to opening curtains, tensions were eased with jokes featuring Shakespearean themes of religion, sexuality and father/daughter relationships by comedian, inmate Eric Durr.
Lesley Currier of Marin Shakespeare Company gave an outline of the drama. It helped the audience understand how envy, jealousy and revenge affected the relationship between Prospero, Antonio, his younger brother, the King Alfonso of Naples, and Ariel. Currier described Ariel as a spirit with a positive energy who was indebted to Prospero for freeing him after 12 years of imprisonment.
“Forgiveness is one of the many themes highlighted by Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” according to the director’s notes. “What changes in Prospero’s life when he chooses forgiveness and reconciliation rather than revenge and hatred? What changes are possible in our own lives when we choose to forgive?”
The play began with a storm, shipwrecked Prospero on an island.
All the actors spoke their lines clearly, which made it easy to follow the plot.
“Antonio, the Duke of Milan, stole the dukedom from his brother, Prospero,” Jason Jones said when describing his character. “Antonio relates to my real life as I have experienced a lot of betrayal and to play the other side of betrayal is discomforting. I had to embody Antonio’s character to get an understanding and feel the hurt and pain of victims and to learn my character flaws.”
Reggie Hola who played the Boatswain said, “My character comes from a family of boatswains, which relates to my real life because of my Polynesian culture. Being a boatswain requires the person to know the ins and outs of the sea and to use the stars to navigate the world.”
Later, the inmate actors were asked how they prepared for the play:
“I had a hard time reading,” Jones said. “I didn’t read my first book until I came to prison. And at the prison I came from, people wouldn’t sit down and help a person read; but Luke (inmate actor, Julian Glenn Padgett) helped me.”
“One of the ideas behind drama therapy is to help the healing process,” Suraya Keating said after hearing Jones. “Healthy relationships help people heal.”
“Showing emotion can bring ridicule,” Juan Carlos Meza said. “Shakespeare allows me to express myself without judgment. I can now do this without judgment. I have enriched my life in ways that cannot be paid.”
“I have learned to be vulnerable,” Vance Farland added, “There have been times in my life where I could have done things in a lead position. Performing Shakespeare has allowed me to get over that fear.”
“Telling jokes helps the men,” Durr said chiming in. “I’m impressed with hanging out with the guys. It helps me. I’m getting soft from doing this.”
Ronell Draper said, “It allows me to like people that I don’t normally like. It helps me to build relationships. They pressured me into being nice.”
“This helps me get out of the tough character that I thought I had to be,” Arthur Miller said.