Students bring Shakespeare, social justice to San Quentin visits

English major Rebecca Van Horn ’18, Business major Nhan Pham ‘19, and Dance major Bri Wilson ’18 never imagined that their shared love of Shakespeare would lead them into San Quentin State Prison and captivate them with a revealing and rewarding connection to inmates.

“To hear the prisoners recite passages of Shakespeare, not by just by heart, but as if they have mulled over them and the passages have become part of them, it’s wonderful,” Rebecca says.

The visit to San Quentin was both unexpected and unique.

“It never crossed my mind before, but that’s one of the things I like about Dominican. They don’t take the beaten path all the time,” Rebecca says. “They offer different projects and philosophies from the normal, and that’s what I like about my education.”

Bri, Nhan, and Rebecca were among a group of 16 Dominican students and faculty who visited San Quentin in November 2017 as part of Dominican’s partnership with the Marin Shakespeare Company. The company’s “Shakespeare and Social Justice” arts-in-corrections program combines drama therapy with Shakespearean performance in Northern California penal institutions.

Since 2003, the program has brought the healing power of literature to the men of San Quentin Prison with all-male productions of plays including Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

“Many of the men are more educated than me in Shakespeare,” Nhan notes.

Last spring Assistant Professor of Literature and Languages Dr. Perry Guevara in the School of Liberal Arts and Education introduced The Bard’s Beasts, an English course that focused on representations of animal life in Shakespeare. Students studied characters who were rendered inhuman by systems of injustice and treated as if they were non-human.

The work inspired Guevara to connect with Julia Van der Ryn, Director of Service-Learning, and Lesley Currier, Managing Director of Marin Shakespeare Company. Guevara’s students attended a series of workshops in preparation for their first visit to San Quentin, where they assisted with the rehearsal for the production of Measure for Measure.

“The students’ initial reaction was `Are you crazy?!’ There was a lot of fear because there are certain narratives in our culture about what prisons are like,” Guevara says. “So much of the work involved dismantling these stereotypes and generalizations about who prisoners are as individuals. It meant reversing the narrative. We did not focus on why these men are in prison or what crimes they committed to get there. We focused on them as actors. These are men with particular talents and skills and they are practicing and rehearsing for many months in order to perform a production of Shakespeare.”

During the initial visit in April 2017, Guevara’s students met about 15 inmates in a bungalow that served as a classroom. Lesley Currier led the group in series of acting exercises, including one where students and inmates paired off, stood face-to-face and locked into eye contact for about a minute as Currier gave a narrative of the inmates’ lives behind bars.

“It was the defining moment of my freshmen year,” says Monica Barry ’20, a double major in English and History. “It is something I know I will look back on and always remember. It definitely helped me grow personally. It was such an eye-opening experience.”

Bri was so impacted by the meeting that she volunteered to return in November when the opportunity arose again.

“I was struck by the openness, vulnerability, and truth that was shared in the room by both the prisoners and the students,” Bri says. “Coming from a dance background, this trip strongly reaffirmed for me how powerful movement is as a unifier. It showed me again how dance can bring us all together, and to create understanding and promote compassion. It was so powerful and moving. I wanted to experience that again.”

For Nhan, the work at San Quentin has changed his perspective.

“It was one of the most significant and most challenging opportunities I’ve had," Nhan says. "My initial feeling about the trip was excitement and curiosity, but it changed by the end of the journey to feeling empowered, but also sad. After spending this time getting to know these men, I felt that I wanted to act on their behalves. I also felt so sad that I was the one who had the privilege to leave."

December 8, 2017