A prison chapel transformed itself into a theater for a Shakespearean play when about two dozen incarcerated men teamed up with Marin Shakespeare Company directors to perform Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.
As the audience of about 50 people, including free people from the local SF Bay Area, settled into their seats in San Quentin’s Garden Chapel, director Lesley Currier asked them to think about their relationships with their fathers. Then she asked everyone to turn to the person next to them and talk about their father — adding that free people ought to seek out an incarcerated person for the exercise.
In easygoing conversations with giggles, head nods, and obvious smiles behind masks, folks talked about their fathers. But it wasn’t all easygoing, some serious subject matter was also discussed, much like that of the play.
Henry IV, as presented at this performance, focuses on the turbulent relationship between King Henry of England and his son, Prince Henry, known as “Hal.”
“This is a story about fathers and sons,” went the opening line by the narrator. “It’s also a story about partying, thievery, and trickery; and about responsibility and honor.”
Participant William Harris, 21, could relate saying his relationship with his father was “rocky with fights and arguments.” He said he felt like he “had to step up and take responsibility,” so he finished school and got a job. Making his “own choices” made him feel better about himself, he said.
Harris said this was his first on-stage appearance, which triggered stage fright. Nonetheless, he was determined to overcome his fears and gain the confidence to “show my voice to others.”
Philippe Kelly, a six-year veteran of the program, said he has too much fun to get stage fright anymore. But he joked, “The first time, I almost threw up like five times.”
New actor Kolby South-wood added, “If you’re having fun up here, then nothing else matters.”
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns, some participants were recruited just days before, and the group was barely able to hold any formal rehearsals. This resulted in lots of improvisation and ad-libbing, yet this spiced up the play nicely, providing some memorable moments and hearty laughs.
“You may have noticed a lot of improv going on up here,” said Kelly afterward during the Q&A with the audience. “Trust is the main thing. Knowing we are going to show up 100 percent every time, which allows us to improv a lot…because everyone knows we are going to perform, we’re going to deliver.”
Henok Rufael also spoke about the importance of trust. “We did trust falls to allow that brotherhood and camaraderie to develop, which helped me to get out of my comfort zone,” he said.
The improv also brought a refreshing dose of modern language to the thick Shakespearean vernacular, which was accented by bass beats booming over the sound system. A live concert touch was added to the soundtrack when Rufael, who played several roles, bowed his violin while stage manager Bill Holloway palmed the conga drums.
As usual, some impressive physical acting was on display, particularly during the (wooden) sword fight scenes. At one point, the stage was a swirl of action as the opposing sides pitched a mock battle in a struggle for the throne.
Perhaps what stood out the most were the dramatic performances and interactions of Darwin “Tall” Billingsley, who channeled his regal disposition to play King Henry, and Raiveon “Ray Ray” Wooden, who played Prince Hal.
Wooden said playing the role of Prince Hal was challenging because of all of the wordplay in the lines and because of the transformation the prince undergoes — from an irresponsible, entitled youngster to one who has to mature quickly because his father is dying.
He said he reached deep within his own experience for inspiration and that “we have to put away the false belief that all youngsters are bad.”
He also revealed that he looks up to Billingsley as a mentor and father figure, who actually talks with Wooden’s father on the phone to let him know how his son is doing. He said that director Currier “type-cast” them in those roles because of that, but admitted it worked.
Billingsley said he got into the Shakespeare program by accident back in 2017 and is grateful that he did.
“You discover talents you don’t even know you had. That’s why people should always try to check things out, because you never know,” he said. “It’s a therapeutic program because you come in and share, and it helps to break-down prejudices and allows self-expression and growth.”
Braydon “Ten” Tennison, who was one of the last-minute add-ons to the cast, also shared praise. “I heard a lot about what a great program it is. I’m honored and grateful to have this opportunity,” he said.
Another new actor, Jay Kim, said it was refreshing to be part of something positive, to have a break from the negative grind and daily prejudice of prison life.
“I’ve always loved skits and drama…and coming in here really clicks. It kind of brings back the humanity, which you lose sight of in here. It’s helping me to get through this time,” he said.
Things got emotional for Wooden at the end. He was performing his last Shakespeare play in San Quentin before going home after being a star of the program.
“I just love these guys,” said Wooden, who choked up as the whole cast surrounded him for a group hug. “Shakespeare is good for these guys. It’s not ‘goodbye,’ it’s ‘see you later.’ This has been a beautiful moment.”
Wooden plans to continue his acting career on the outside, including with the Marin Shakespeare Company’s Returned Citizens Theater Troupe to tell important stories about incarceration and justice through theater.
Senior Editor Juan Haines contributed to this article.