For more than 25 years, Bob and Lesley Currier have run the Marin Shakespeare Company in San Rafael, Calif. For 13 years, Lesley has done Shakespeare and devised work with inmates at the California state prisons San Quentin and Solano, which culminates in an annual show open to the public. They also happen to be my parents.
As surreal as it is going to prison to see a show, the stranger part is always leaving. You have come in and shared something with these actors. You have enriched each other’s lives, laughed, shook hands, and mingled. And then you walk out, with the knowledge that they cannot freely leave, and that some of them never will.
But just a few months ago, one of these inmates, Dameion “Nation” Brown, did get out of Solano prison after a 23-year sentence. His only theatre experience was playing Macduff for my mother while still behind bars. This weekend, that will change when Brown opens in the title role in MSC’s mainstage production of Othello, which runs Sept. 2-25.
Despite all of the challenges facing ex-convicts, Brown has worked hard to make his dream a reality. I had lunch with Brown on a break from his day job as a case manager for at-risk youth to talk about his long journey to the stage.
Nate Currier: Where are you from originally?
Dameion Brown: Originally I’m from Jackson, Tenn.—very Southern town, big family. Altogether, with the adopted ones included, there are 11 of us. My dad was from Ghana, and he was deported when I was 14. But he and my mom did a pretty good job of stabilizing us up to that point. So I didn’t have to live with the sense of no father.
You’ve were cast as Othello before, in eighth grade, but never got to perform. What happened?
Well, Tennessee’s very Southern—a lot of racism. When parents found out that a young black boy would be romantically on display with a young white girl, it was too much for the South. Very quietly they pulled the plug and just swept it away.
And before you met Lesley, did you have any other theatre experience?
So you’re in Solano and you hear about this program. Why did you decide to do it?
I decided to do it because I was looking for something that could give me a mental escape. I didn’t think they would be there as long as they were.
What was the vibe like that first day you were in rehearsals?
It was silly. I could not see the point to any of the exercises, because you have to keep in mind, we’re prisoners, you know? Somewhat hardened men. But all of those exercises, as I continued on, I understood their place, and I felt the mental muscle that they gave me for the performance. To come together with that many different men of different backgrounds where you’re all are hoping for the best in one another, that is life. That is the best of life.
So you get cast as Macduff.
Yeah. I did not want Macduff. I asked for the smallest role! I wanted the smallest role in the play. But she made me believe that I could do it. I started to invest more of myself in the exercises she would present. And one of the greatest things that she did for me was show me, Where are the parallels in my life that meet this character?
Why does everyone call you Nation?
[Laughs] Well, it wasn’t a name that I chose. When I first entered prison, many rules govern there. It’s racially separated, and another division is the gangs. I was never a person who was prone to gang behavior, because I was raised with the idea that you stand or fall on your own merit. You have a problem, solve it, but it’s your problem to solve. So I would not submit to the rules because they did not make sense to me.
A nation unto yourself.
Exactly. So for a while they’d always say, “Here comes the Nation, here comes the Nation,” and after about a year or so, the article got dropped and it was just Nation.
So you told my mom and dad that you wanted to play Othello.
I said, “I would love to be able to get to play Othello, but to pull it off.” You know?
Love that. [Fist bump]
I love the complexity of it. A lot of hard work.
How do you feel about him as a character?
I have great sympathy for Othello because he was imprisoned by noble things that we as humans need to live by. We need to love. We need to be courageous. We need to have high morals and ethics. And we need to trust someone. And it was those things that ensnared him.
He reminds me a lot of my dad. He would say things like, “Always be the good brother. That is your only guarantee that there is one still out there.” And perhaps there are those who avoid efforts in morality and trust because they are not willing to be so vulnerable.
You’ve had a couple previews now. How is it different performing with an audience than in the rehearsal room?
I truly believe that, even if I were so blessed to be able to perform at the Globe one day, I would never be as nervous as I was when I performed in prison. You’re presenting with people who—not all of them, but many of them—don’t like the idea of certain people working together. And this includes guards.
By day, you work with at-risk youth as a case manager. Can you tell me about that?
Definitely. I was asked a question by an ABC news reporter: Did I have anything to prove? And I told her no. I had gotten over that in childhood. I thought about that later. And a more accurate statement is: I do have something to prove, but not for my benefit. I have to prove to the young people that I work with that no matter how far they fall, there’s still something great that they can do. Some of my children have been incarcerated—many have been shot, have been abused on various levels. And they have not identified any part of the system that really understands or cares for them. I don’t believe that great civilizations were ever built in times of war.
And what do they think of you doing Shakespeare?
They laugh at me and can’t wait to come and see me.
Is there anything the media hasn’t asked you that you want to say?
I guess if I could just say anything—and I’m talking to people who are affluent—many times, people swim in the waters that they’re in because they’ve never been exposed to cleaner streams. If you take the time to make a way, to expose people from less fortunate means to these things, they can appreciate them. And you don’t have to fear them harming you or being a detriment to you. What people don’t understand, they fear and they hate—and they hate because of the fear. Exposure is a wonderful thing. Open up your clubs to young people to come, once a year, twice a year, just to make them feel that they are part of it, not a problem.