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after words

Freedom and Redemption

Aldo Billingslea’s summer course in “Performing Shakespeare” takes on a whole new meaning when the stage is in San Quentin

Ariana Khan '07 and Aldo Billingslea
Photo: Charles Barry
Ariana Khan '07, left, is studying political science and theatre at SCU and Aldo Billingslea is an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance.

By Ariana Khan ’07

As we entered the gates of San Quentin and passed through each level of security, my fellow classmates grew increasingly tense. I could see it in their faces, how they held themselves. I tried to reassure the three of them that everything would be fine; after all, we were only there for a play rehearsal. But it was tough to take it all in stride when our escort explained the “no hostage negotiation” policy.

We were a bit bewildered when we finally entered the prison grounds—we weren’t expecting to find immaculately landscaped lawns ringed by palm trees. As for the inmates, video games and “Law and Order” had us expecting to meet vicious brutes. But the men we met and rehearsed with were respectful, kind, and talented. Never had I seen acting so focused and so honest. We’d realized already that in reaching out to a part of the community most students never see that we had to overcome the stereotypes and fears we held. What we didn’t realize, until that rehearsal, was that we had to work much harder as actors if our performances were going to be on par with the inmates’.

Come performance day, the trip back to San Quentin was filled with tension and fear again, but no longer for the fortress and its inhabitants. This time, what gnawed at us were an actor’s worst enemies: thy media and thyself. But there we found ourselves, in a chapel filled with inmates and reporters. And we began. Michael delivered the “Seven Ages of Man” speech delivered by Jacques in “As You Like It.” There were tears in his eyes as he spoke the final lines:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Ronin stood center stage with a spoon in hand to symbolize a blade as he contemplated suicide with Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” Louis Branch had us transfixed, when the 59-year-old inmate recited Sonnet 30: “I summon up remembrance of things past....” Then it was our turn.

My liberty

We were there to perform scenes from “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s magical tale that explores themes of freedom and redemption. I played Ariel, the spirit of the air who willingly assists the sorcerer Prospero, but who still longs to be released from servitude. Up until the performance, I have to admit that I struggled with what really motivated Ariel. But there was something about that audience, there in the chapel in San Quentin, that filled me with a new sense of the character.

In many ways, our audience was just like any other: They laughed, applauded, and asked their neighbors definitions of words they did not understand. But these men have few opportunities to enjoy the therapeutic benefits that the arts can provide. Others might appreciate the themes of “The Tempest” on an intellectual level; these men cherished them.

Mallory Harper as Prospero asked Ariel, “What is’t thou canst demand?”

“My liberty,” I answered.

For another scene, 63-year-old J.B. Wells played Prospero; I, as Ariel, sat beside him, and we watched his daughter, Miranda (student Katie Fier), fall in love with Ferdinand (student Calvin Johnson). Calvin told Katie that he would gladly perform hard labor for the sake of love. White-haired J.B. seemed to drink in the scene. How could he not?

Then, all too soon, it was over. But not before we had a profound new sense of what it means to desire freedom—and a new sense of how desperately we need to keep a place for redemption and grace in the human condition.

This article was written in collaboration with Aldo Billingslea.

Read comments from other students who participated in performing Shakespeare in San Quentin, and view a photo gallery from the performance.

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