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Playing With Conviction

June 16, 2009

The chapel at San Quentin State Prison doesn't look like it would make a very effective place to stage a play by Shakespeare -- or any work for the stage outside of the morality play cannon for that matter. The dumpy modern room is equipped with a huge wooden crucifix on the back wall. A prisoner-artist's garish painting depicting a bloody, crucified Christ hangs to the right of the Crucifix. To the left hangs a more New Agey painting of a shadowy, God-like figure presiding over the Earth and other spinning planets in our galaxy. The walls also display plaques with Biblical axioms like "Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself." Though the room is bright, the atmosphere is sterile. There are copies of the Bible sitting in pockets at the back of the institutional wooden pews.

I wasn't sure what to expect as I took my seat for the prisoners' production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The only way to tell that the room would soon become the site of a theatrical event was by looking to the front, where the Crucifix had been partially covered with a painting of a forest dotted with tiny Victorian picture postcard fairies. To the left of the backdrop stood a makeshift cardboard archway (through which the actors would make some of their entrances). The rest of the set comprised of six chairs, center stage.

The prisoner-actors in the production, which was directed by Suraya Susana Keating, the leader of San Quentin's Shakespeare Program, had been rehearsing for this one-off performance for nine months. After several failed attempts to get the work up on stage infront of an audience (the latest of which, I blogged about here last week), the company was finally ready to go. The anticipation was palpable as I took my seat in a pew.

Being in San Quentin watching the inmates perform Shakepeare's comedy was startling. I'm still unpacking the thoughts and emotions I experienced yesterday. Over the course of a few hours I went from embarrassment (the result of turning up at the compound wearing "non-regulation" clothes and was given a pair of ugly green scrubs to put over my white linen trousers at the prison gate) to elation at the actors' comedic flair, energy and creative approach to characterization, to disconcertment at the bold interpretation of certain scenes (which took on new and strange meanings as performed within the gaol walls) and finally deep gratitude at having been given the opportunity not only to witness the actors' performances, but also to hear their thoughts about how working on the play is transforming their lives in a talk-back session after the show.

For me, the most affecting scene was the one in which Titania seduces the ass-headed Bottom. Normally, the scene is played as pure romantic comedy, with Bottom being entirely enthusiastic about receiving a pampering from a bunch of fairies and finding himself the object of desire of their bewitchingly beautiful Queen. But in this case, Bottom (played with great aplomb by Ronin Holmes, a San Quentin Shakespeare Company stalwart and charismatic presence on stage) was completely reluctant. Forced to comply with Titania's whims against his will, Bottom cut a distraught figure, trapped, like a prisoner, in a sinister and menacing fairy world and unable to set himself free. The strong reading of the scene brought out other aspects of Shakespeare's play in which characters, such as the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, are forced to do things against their wills. And because the play was performed by the inmates in a state penitentiary, the theme of entrapment seemed all the more potent.

At the end of the production, one of the actors talked about how he feels like he's not in prison when he's working on the play. It provides him with a wonderful outlet for escape. The program is obviously doing a great deal for the people who are involved in it and should be supported. The prisoners' engagement with Keating's Shakespeare classes ought to be taken into consideration by parole boards in deciding the fate of inmates.

At the same time, I couldn't help feeling emotional about what was being said in the talk-back and at the thought of the actors having to return to their cells after curtain. As Bottom so palpably demonstrated, even in the fairy kingdom, it's possible to feel entrapped.


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