A week ago today, I sat in the chapel at the San Quentin State Prison in Northern California to witness Parallel Plays: Original Theater Inspired by Shakespeare, produced by the Marin Shakespeare Company ("MSC"), directed by a former coworker (from my yoga teaching days) and written by the inmates of San Quentin. Actors included the supremely talented inmates and members of the MSC. It was a game changer. I'm still processing but suffice it to say these guys have a few things in common with the Bard's characters.
Only they can sing. And dance more than the minuet. Our emcee, "Maverick," is Chris Rock's doppelgänger. Same comedic timing, disarming candor, confidence. Our guest-of-the-state guitarist channeled Neil Young as he sang a series of originals composed in a cell the breadth of a twin bed "plus the width of [his] shoulders."
One of the first vignettes, "Razed by the State," was based on Ronell's story. His little brother, unable to pronounce his name, called him "RaRa." Both boys were abused and abandoned.
"As long as we get placed, they get paid," Ronell explained to his brother before being sent to a separate foster home and sexually and physically abused by his foster mother. Not suprisingly, Ronell became a drug dealer who landed in prison after he shot someone during a deal gone bad.
He did not recognize his victim before pulling the trigger.
But he did hear his dying word: "RaRa."
It had been ten years since he'd seen his little brother, whose life he took that day.
Which would scramble any Shakespeare character--or man--for life.
Of the couple hundred of us in the audience, about half were inmates. We all cried during Ronell's story (he was on stage) and the fourteen other heartrending tragedies that followed.
During the Q&A, the men shared what the theater program has done for them. One of the more seasoned con-actors offered that it has helped him understand "we are more alike than different."
He wasn't just referring to his fellow inmates.