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Actors at San Quentin play different roles on stage for their December 2021 performance with Marin Shakespeare Company.
Photos courtesy of Marin Shakespeare Company

Late last year, COVID-19 reared its ugly head once again inside San Quentin State Prison (SQ). This time, though, the disease was circulating on a stage inside the prison’s chapel. Undeterred by inclement weather and administrative restrictions, a small audience gathered round.

“COVID — That’s Crazy” was one of eight original skits performed by the incarcerated Marin Shakespeare troupe in December. In the opening scene, the disease made its appearance as a newly arrived prisoner and soon began mingling with established, hard-nosed convicts like influenza, norovirus and Legionnaires’ disease.

“This is my first time in prison,” said Philippe “Kels” Kelly in his role as COVID-19.  “There are a lot of people at San Quentin. I’ma tear this place up. Watch what I do to this yard.”

The old-school diseases spoke brazenly about their infectious exploits while COVID-19 listened unimpressed. Other incarcerated actors pantomimed normal prison activities — like working out on the yard — while COVID-19 laughed menacingly before striking them down one by one.

The Marin Shakespeare Company has for years facilitated weekly acting workshops for SQ residents. The intimate sessions use drama therapy to help incarcerated participants confront emotional issues in a safe space while preparing them to perform in public. In pre-pandemic times, performances by incarcerated actors were showcased publicly a few times a year. 

On Friday, incarcerated actors at SQ will perform Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “Henry IV,” parts one and two.

The December performances almost didn’t go on at all. A thick morning fog rolled in, causing hours-long delays to the facility’s normal operations. Whenever outdoor visibility becomes impaired, CDCR safety and security protocols limit prisoner movement. As a result, the acting troupe had less time than originally scheduled to perform.

The fog had barely dissipated by noon, and hardly anyone outside the troupe made it to the chapel for the performances. Less than 20 people, most of whom were the actors and outside facilitators, were there.

“It lets us practice patience,” said Marin Shakespeare managing director Lesley Currier. “One of the things I’ve learned from people in prison is resiliency. You guys know how to deal with whatever life throws your way.”

As the troupe arrived late from their various units, Currier, Keating, director Marianne Shine and assistant director Alejandra Wahl rallied to compress two separate performances into the remaining time.

The collection of eight original skits, titled “Original Theater Inspired By Our Lives,”  was written by the incarcerated actors themselves. It had originally been slated to fill the first two hours. A version of “Othello,” which had been repeatedly postponed since early 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns, followed.

The skits touched on socially relevant topics, including gender bias and reparations, but COVID-19 was the dominant theme. “COVID, The Invisible,” underscored the devastation caused by the virus inside San Quentin. Actor Steve Drown’s “COVID Story,” meanwhile, explored how the pandemic resulted in a profound and beautiful reconnection with his brother.

“COVID is generally associated with tragedy and loss,” said Drown, alone on stage. “Very rarely do those things turn into something positive.”

Because of time constraints, the Othello performance shifted to an impromptu audience-participation workshop. The actors abandoned the stage for a circular huddle of chairs, a scene similar to the weekly sessions in which the actors rehearse, improvise and confront personal issues.

On her knees at the center of the circle, Currier demonstrated the technique of playback theater — a form of improvisation in which an actor or actors revisit emotional events from one’s life.

“As a theater artist, I’m doing the thing that I love,” said Currier. “When you’re part of an ensemble, you’re one piece of the puzzle — one piece of a beautiful picture.”

Actor Tommy Payne has participated in Marin Shakespeare at SQ for several years and had been involved in many drama-therapy sessions and live performances.

“It’s helped me be more confident and understand my self-worth,” said Payne.  “Interacting with a group of people, you learn to build trust within that group. The biggest thing it’s helped me with is to be able to open up and have fun.”

Despite the day’s obstacles, San Quentin experienced a little bit of magic inside the prison’s chapel. “Every time we put on a play, it’s a miracle,” said Currier. “Dealing with the fog and the two-hour delay made today’s performance even more of a miracle.”

After the stage filled with fallen SQ residents at the end of “COVID — That’s Crazy,” Marin Shakespeare’s social justice director Suraya Keating, playing the role of the Moderna vaccine, brought the COVID-ravaged population back to life. 

Back on their feet, the ensemble stood silently in acknowledgement of the 227 deaths attributed to COVID-19 throughout the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

Since the December performance, CDCR has recorded 28 more deaths to COVID-19 in state correctional facilities.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Joe Garcia is a journalist and PJP correspondent incarcerated in California. Garcia was previously a staff writer and the chair of the Journalism Guild for San Quentin News. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.