Dameion Brown stars in ‘Othello’

Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications

An in-prison Shakespeare program is coming full circle, as a man who participated in theater while incarcerated is now starring on a professional stage in his community.

Dameion Brown as Othello in Marin Shakespeare Company’s summer production. (Photo by Steve Underwood.)

Dameion Brown as Othello in Marin Shakespeare Company’s summer production. (Photo by Steve Underwood.)

Dameion Brown was introduced to the Marin Shakespeare Company at California State Prison-Solano (SOL), where he was serving a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. Today, he’s preparing to take the stage as the title character in “Othello.”

He’s come a long way in life and in theater. When he first dipped his toe into Shakespeare, auditioning for a role in “Macbeth” at SOL, he asked for the smallest role. Lesley Currier, executive director of Marin Shakes, had something else in mind, sensing in Brown an innate theatrical talent and casting him as the protagonist, Macduff.

“Lesley has a way of getting you to believe that you can do something,” Brown said. “She just exudes confidence.”

The possibility of sparking such confidence is what drove Currier to not only run a professional theater company, but also to teach a rehabilitative theater program inside San Quentin State Prison in 2003. In addition to working with professional actors at Marin Shakes, Currier and a dedicated team of thespians travel to an expanding number of prisons – currently San Quentin, SOL, Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF) and High Desert State Prison (HDSP) – to provide structured theater programming for male and female inmates.

Inspired by Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare program at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky, Currier’s prison Shakespeare program pushes the inmate actors to go far outside their comfort zones, often finding so many more rewards than applause by the time the curtain falls.

“It turns a switch on in their heads where they go, ‘Wait a minute, let me pretend. Let me see what joy feels like. Let me touch what sorrow feels like. Let me express fear in the safe confines of this tiny little acting class.’ And I’ve seen it break down many barriers.”

The program’s expansion into prisons beyond San Quentin is funded by CDCR’s Arts-in-Corrections program, in which the department partnered with the California Arts Council to provide structured, rehabilitative arts programming to prisons. In addition, Marin Shakes is also a recipient of a CDCR Innovative Grants Program award, which recognizes successful rehabilitative programs and funds their expansion to prisons with smaller volunteer bases, in order to make those programs accessible to inmates regardless of their location.

While San Quentin is a Level II (medium-security) institution, Marin Shakes does also serve higher-level inmates, such as at SOL, where the Level II and III yards hold the program each year.

Joseph Jackson leads the way as Ariel in “The Tempest.”

Joseph Jackson leads the way as Ariel in “The Tempest.”

Joseph Jackson, who took on the challenging role of the spirit Ariel in this year’s SOL Level III production of “The Tempest,” said that in addition to the benefits of being creative and working as a unified team, the Shakespeare program is also an opportunity to disconnect from prison life for a while.

“My desire to come out of my comfort zone is to show people on the yard that you can do something different than all the stuff that’s going on in the yard,” he said. “You can be vulnerable you can take a chance and you can have a little fun – and get a little fame in the process.”

Indeed, “Tempest” and the Level II production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” were so well received that both shows were extended from one performance to two, adding a week to each production to accommodate the inmate population and outside guests eager to attend. While many audience members had never been exposed to theater before, much less Shakespearian plays, each performance ended with both a standing ovation and a rousing question-and-answer session in which cast and audience shared their views on putting on a show in such an unlikely setting.

“This is something this place does not see very often, does not experience very often,” said Steve Drown, who played Lysander in “Midsum.” While he has theater experience, it had been 43 years since he stepped onstage, and said he jumped at the chance when Currier and drama therapist Lynn Baker began the program. “We have been very blessed with the people who have come in to work with us, to mold us into actors.”

Indeed, it was their support and faith in Brown that inspired him to audition for “Othello” this year. Upon parole he attended Marin Shakes’ production of “Richard III,” which was his first time seeing a professional play. He was impressed by actor Aidan O’Reilly, who played the title role, even before discovering the actor is legally blind.

“It was just mind blowing,” Brown said. “I looked at what we did in Solano with our play, and I said, ‘This is an entirely different level here. I would hope to be able to perform at that caliber someday.’”

Lesley Currier spends time before each performance explaining the plot and themes of the show to the audience.

Lesley Currier spends time before each performance explaining the plot and themes of the show to the audience.

His chance came soon enough, as Artistic Director Robert Currier invited Brown to audition for “Othello.” Brown took a leap and auditioned, and got the part. He vividly remembers his first table read, when he entered a room full of professional actors understandably hesitant to take the stage with an actor whose only previous experience was a prison production.

“That walk around the table was probably the longest walk I’ve taken in a long time,” Brown remembered, chuckling.

But the cast has welcomed him with open arms, recognizing his innate talent and working with him to perfect the finer technical points of staging the play. Brown mused that the parallels between himself and Othello, a man ostracized based on his skin color, with no regard for his merit as a general, have also served him in adopting the role.

“Othello had a lot of positive attributes about himself that were ignored by the ruling class simply because he was a Moor,” he said. “I had been charged with a crime so I was defined by those charges, and everything else in me was ignored. I know how that feels.”

However, Brown is now using his past – and his passion to help others – at Community Works West, an organization he was involved with at SOL. Community Works West engages youth and adults in arts, education and restorative justice programs with the aim healing the impacts of incarceration and violence, and reducing the number of people entering the criminal justice system. Now employed as a mentor there, Brown works with at-risk young adults, sharing his story to empower them to stay on a positive path.

“I don’t believe anyone will benefit as much from my successes as they will my failures,” he said. “It is important for them to understand that you can fall down, and get up, and run.”

Looking back at the last year, Brown says he is grateful for the support system he has, and excited for his future. As he prepares to take the stage as Othello, he is reminded how that support system began in a place where he didn’t expect to find one.

“All those people I performed with at Solano – I speak of them regularly,” he said. “I tell the cast about them and I think about them every day we are performing and doing what we do. Anything that I am representing right now that is acceptable to any audience was certainly started in there, with them.”