Challenging Drama: San Quentin

August 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: A group of invited guests arrived at California’s San Quentin prison recently to attend a preview by inmates of a dramatic work in progress, “John Brown’s Body,” an epic poem about slavery, freedom and the Civil War. Mounting a play dealing with race was a risk for the prison, and attending it was a risk for the playgoers.

SPOKESMAN: In the unlikely event that you are taken hostage, the state of California would not negotiate your release for an inmate’s release. Of course we would activate our special emergency response team to insure your safe release.

SPENCER MICHELS: Among the guests: Thomas Benet, son of Steven Vincent Benet, who wrote “John Brown’s Body” in the late-1920s.

SPOKESMAN: I need to check your bag.

WOMAN: Sure.

SPENCER MICHELS: He and the other guests, who had to pass through four separate checkpoints, had been invited in the hopes they would spread the word about the play. San Quentin, built on the shore of San Francisco Bay in 1852, is California’s oldest and most renowned prison. Designed for 3,400 inmates, today it holds 6,100 men, including 560 condemned to die. Unlike the dozens of newly constructed, sterile state prisons built for efficient control of inmates, San Quentin still has huge, multi-tiered, noisy cell blocks difficult for guards to monitor. As in most California prisons, racially-oriented gangs hold sway. On the yard Latinos, African Americans, and whites only occasionally mix. Lieutenant Vernell Crittendon is prison spokesman.

LT. VERNEL CRITTENDON, San Quentin Prison: There is this unwritten code within the prison saying you would associate generally with your own ethnicity. There is a clear undertone of some racial tension and division.

SPENCER MICHELS: When filmmaker and aspiring play director Joe de Francesco asked prison authorities to allow a mixed cast of inmates, most serving life sentences for murder, to perform a play with racial content, there was some reluctance, according to Crittendon.

LT. VERNEL CRITTENDON: Just bringing up the whole racial issue inside of a prison setting raised some concern among correctional staff here at the facility.

SPENCER MICHELS: What was the concern?

LT. VERNEL CRITTENDON: That it may cause further separation of the races rather than pulling those races together.

SPENCER MICHELS: It took De Francesco more than two years to gather a cast and whittle down the resistance of the authorities. Even though the poem deals with events of 140 years ago, he understood why prison officials were suspicious.

JOE DE FRANCESCO: San Quentin is a place where a white man and a black man do not share a cell. Race is not talked about, really, here. The underpinnings of “John Brown’s Body,” everything is about race. If you talk about American history, you’re talking about race. And “John Brown’s Body” is American history writ large.

SINGING: Captain Ball was a Yankee slaver, blow, blow blow the man down he traded in slaves and loved his savior, give me some time to blow the man down.

SPENCER MICHELS: The play begins on a slave ship. The mate is sent to check on the human cargo.

ACTOR: Lantern in hand, he went down into the hold. Each time he went, he had a trick of trying to shut the pores of his body against the stench.

ACTOR: When I get home, when I get a bath and clean food, when I get my shore clothes on, and one of those shirts out of the linen closet that smells of lavender, will my skin smell black even then; will my skin smell black?

SPENCER MICHELS: Director de Francesco realized early on that prison authorities would question him about such language.

JOE DE FRANCESCO: “You’re coming in here to do what?” Where a man walks to the front, a white man walks to the front in this play and looks at his arm and says, “When I get home again, and I get clean clothes on, will my skin smell black even then? Will my skin smell black?” You see, this is not a nice piece. It tells things the way they are, the way they were, and where we’re coming from. So there’s nothing nice about it.

ACTOR: Get up, get up, my hardy sons. From this time forth we are no longer men, but pikes and guns in God’s advancing war.

SPENCER MICHELS: Central to the poem is the story of John Brown, the abolitionist, who, in 1859, attacked a federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, hoping to start a slave uprising. But nothing went as planned. Brown was trapped inside; some townspeople, including the mayor, Beckham, were shot.

ACTOR: Oh, he said, shot through the heart, took a step and fell on his face, shot through the heart.

ACTOR: The bars had been open all day, never to better business. When news of Beckham’s death spread from bar to bar, it was like putting locoweed in the whiskey.

ACTOR: The armory yard was taken by a band of Beckham’s avengers. The most of brown’s prisoners freed, and his last escape cut off.

ACTOR: Only this remains to be told, as the drunken day reeled into night, there were left in the engine house five men alive and unwounded, all of the raiders.

ACTOR: Now and then there were shots. The prisoners talked and tried to sleep. But John Brown did not try to sleep. He heard his young son, Oliver, calling in the thirsty agony of his wounds.


ACTOR: If you must die, die like a man.

SPENCER MICHELS: John Brown has become a kind of hero for actor George Lamb in his 16th year of a 25-to-life sentence.

GEORGE LAMB, Inmate/Actor: You have to get to a place where you start seeing the value in people, you know, and I think that he had gotten to a place where all of the atrocities that were occurring around him finally just pierced his soul or penetrated his own convictions. He took advantage of that, and that was courageous for that time.

SPENCER MICHELS: Lamb says being in the play is different from anything he’s experienced in the prison system.

ACTOR: Almighty, hear my prayer.

ACTOR: I was getting along. I was doing well.

GEORGE LAMB: It’s an ensemble and so different people play different parts and at any given time, one of the cast members could be a white guy in this scene and a slave in that scene. And, you know, it just caused us to look inside ourselves and look outside of the box that we just kind of live inside of, you know? They put me in jail, lord, way down in jail

SPENCER MICHELS: Larry Miller, a lifer hoping for eventual parole, joined the cast somewhat skeptically.

LARRY MILLER, Inmate/Actor: When Joe came up with the idea for this play, I thought he was out of his mind. When he first handed us a script, and we looked at it, it didn’t make any sense, and it didn’t start making sense until we realized that it was a poem, instead of just a straight drama.

JOE DE FRANCESCO: When they first came in, a fellow said to me, “what is this? Shakespeare or something?” After about two weeks he came back to me and he said, “I don’t know about this. You know, I’m just a guy from south central. I don’t really know.” I said, “just stay with it. Stay with it.” About a year later, I wanted to take something out of his part, and he said, “no, no. No, you can’t do that.” I said, “why not?” He said, “because it’s got teeth.” So they’ve gradually come to see that this applies to them and beyond them.

ACTOR: In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, of a desire on my part to free slaves.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the drama, John Brown is tried and convicted in court– a scene not unfamiliar to these inmates.

ACTOR: I am worth now infinitely more to die than to live.

ACTOR: The judge pronounced the formal words of death. There was a noise of chairs scraped back in the courtroom.

ACTOR: He left one last written message.

ACTOR: I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.

LARRY MILLER: This helps me become a better person, man. I would like to in some kind of way to give a little bit back, after redeeming myself for the crime I committed, you know. I know, you know, prisons are necessary. I was a criminal. You know, I was a thug, a hoodlum, and I’m getting my just deserves.

SPENCER MICHELS: Have you ever done any acting before?

LARRY MILLER: Other than acting like a damn fool, no. No. No acting experience whatsoever.

SPENCER MICHELS: As the drama moves beyond the Harper’s Ferry Raid, Miller plays a young slave wrestling with the idea of escape. Since prison authorities wouldn’t allow touching between a male inmate and a woman, the professional actress appears on a TV screen.

ACTRESS: Ain’t I good enough for you no more, black boy?

ACTOR: You’s better’n good to me, and I loves you, woman. But I keep thinkin’, wonderin’ what I’d feel like if I was free.

ACTRESS: Hush, black boy. For the lord’s sake! Hush.

ACTOR: But listen, woman.

ACTRESS: Hush yo’self, black boy. Lean yo’self on my breast. Talk like that and patrollers’ll get you. Swing you all to bits with a blacksnake whip. It ain’t safe to talk like that.

ACTOR: I got to, woman. I got a feelin’ in my heart.

SPENCER MICHELS: In a prison where lockdowns are common and inmates are frequently transferred, rehearsing and mounting the previews of what will eventually be a two-hour presentation have been filled with delays and uncertainty.

JOE DE FRANCESCO: There have been no guarantees ever that these men are going to perform this. This is climbing a mountain for them– it is. And of course, they don’t get many, many huge challenges. These are not men who picked up books all their lives and know “John Brown’s Body” or the literature of it or anything. But they see the challenge.

ACTOR: I ain’t scared to talk, and the patrollers, and I ain’t mean.

SPENCER MICHELS: So far, only outsiders have seen “John Brown’s body,” and they have been enthusiastic. The challenge now is for the cast, the director and prison authorities to find a way to perform it before a much larger and tougher audience: The inmates of this ancient, racially-divided prison.

ACTOR: I want to be free like an eagle in the air, like an eagle in the air.