The San Quentin Shakespeare Group performed scenes from Othello and original theater pieces in front of an audience of over 60 supporters and incarcerated people in the San Quentin Protestant Chapel in December.
The dedicated actors overcame a two-hour delay from restricted movement issues due to fog. Then they delivered compelling performances featuring convincing acting, clever humor, commentary on timely issues, personal vulnerability, and some impressive physical theater. Laughter and support greeted moments of forgotten lines and improvisation, creating a warm, inclusive atmosphere.
“We’ve all lost a lot people in our lives,” said incarcerated actor Philippe Kelly. “But we’ve found brothers here in this class. In this class, you can be your authentic self.”
The San Quentin Shakespeare Group is a programming class run by the Marin Shakespeare Company with financial support from the California Arts Council, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Innovative Grants Program, and donations from generous individuals.
The Marin Shakespeare Company began its first prison group at San Quentin in 2003 and has since expanded to 14 California prisons. It also directs the Returned Citizens Theater Troupe with actors who have survived incarceration and tell important stories through theater.
“I never liked Shakespeare until I came here,” said incarcerated actor Jesse Ayers. “I never understood the language, never understood its relevancy. But now I do.”
Othello is a Shakespeare play about forbidden love between a Moorish general from Africa and a senator’s daughter from Italian Venice, and like much of Shakespeare’s work, it features universal themes of the joys, pains, and moral dilemmas of the human experience. The characters struggle with love, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, pride, addictions, prejudice, and the consequences of their decisions.
“I’ve come to realize Shakespeare was a visionary,” Kelly said. “His work has proven to be timeless. It was written all those years ago, but it’s still relevant today.
“Acting out emotions on stage gives us a better understanding of our own, so we can heal, so we can make better decisions and not come back to prison.”
The Othello performance included a planned interruption when each actor talked about how they related to the characters they were playing, and the lessons they took away. A hypothetical question was posed: “How do we bring this back to the violence in our communities; how do we learn from the characters’ mistakes? Well, let’s run it back and see what happens when they make the right decisions.”
The actors then reenacted a scene where Othello’s right-hand man, Cassio, played by Raiveon “Ray Ray” Wooden, is tempted into drinking and partying by a friend, who was actually trying to use his weakness for alcohol as an opportunity to betray him. This time Cassio, by admitting his weakness and listening to the voice of wisdom, declined the invitation and avoided a shameful downfall.
Ayers warmed up the audience with an opening comedy act, which was followed by the first original performance, “Gender Bias.” It explored issues of prejudice and identity experienced by a transgender man who struggles with self-acceptance as well as acceptance by family and friends.
“Identity is something we all deal with,” said incarcerated writer Quincy Paige. “Finding out who you are is so important. Be you, and know that’s priceless.”
Next was a piece called “Lines,” by incarcerated actor Steve Drown. It brought humor to the frustration of endless lines that incarcerated people must deal with — chow lines, pill lines, canteen lines, and out-of-bounds lines. Drown’s monologue was acted out behind him to hilarious effect. He ended with this line, “Of course, in order to deal with those anger-inducing lines, you can request to be seen by a psych. But be prepared to wait in line!”
The COVID-19 outbreak and pandemic were the subject of several performance pieces. “COVID, the Invisible,” written by Darwin “Tall” Billingsley, featured some inspired rapping by Ayers and Paige about the outbreak at San Quentin.
In “COVID Story,” Drown reflected on the silver linings of the pandemic, including how it seemed to motivate people to finally reach out to long-lost loved ones to reconnect or find healing. He shared his experience of his estranged kid brother reconnecting with him out of the blue after 44 years of incarceration.
His brother, who grew up to be a police officer, wrote, “As I age, I see things through a different lens. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years reflecting on my life and my family. I’ve become saddened by the fact this was not how life was supposed to be: a brother whom I have never met, a family estranged.”
Even though Drown has never seen what his brother looks like as a grown man, his brother has seen him now thanks to videos and pictures from prison Shakespeare performances available through the Marin Shakespeare Company. Drown finished by reminding the audience, “If someone reaches out to you, grab on, hold on, and keep squeezing. Like COVID with its variants, all families have their variants. Just remember, we are all a work in progress.”
How do we bring this back to the violence in our communities? How do we learn from the characters’ mistakes?
A piece titled “Reparations” tackled the perspectives of a southern plantation slave master and those enslaved by him, as well as his wife and son, who struggle with how to be free of his cruel oppression. Each character took turns speaking passionate monologues while the others were frozen in place, only to refreeze again as the next took their turn. Besides displaying some impressive acting and convincing accents, this piece tackled the moral dilemma of fighting evil and oppression with violence at the risk of doing evil.
The final original theater piece, titled “Justice 2” by Wooden and Tommy Payne, featured mock battle scenes and choreographed physical acting on a skill level to rival the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
After the Othello performance, volunteers from the outside supporters in attendance were invited to share stories of when they had experienced jealousy or love. In a simulation of what they do for practice in class, the group then reenacted the story using a technique called “Playback theater.” In another instance, they physically symbolized the emotions using a “fluid sculpture” technique.
After a woman shared a story of her jealously over friendships with brave honesty and vulnerability, an incarcerated person from the audience called out, “She’s done the work!” The comment was met with laughter and applause.
“One thing we all love about theater is it allows us to touch people’s hearts,” said Director Suraya Keating.
“Being part of this group has broadened my horizons,” actor Kelly said. “Coming from where I’m from — Watts in Los Angeles — there really are no Black people, especially men, doing Shakespeare, or even interested in it. But it’s helped me to see life differently, to not be judgmental about other people and their experiences.
“This group has been an important way for me to progress through programming. Some of us have even been offered jobs by the Hamilton (SF Bay Area) production, so that’s something I can look forward to when I get out.”
“Through this theater, we’re giving society a clearly visible picture of what we do in here,” added Wooden. “To see how performance acting is changing our lives for the better. It’s like therapy, man.”