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TBA Online: News & Features: July 2018

A Former Inmate Takes on a New Role

Tuesday, July 3, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Jia Taylor

For Dameion Brown, life looks a lot different than it did two decades ago. Incarcerated at age 24, Brown served 23 years of a life sentence at Solano State Prison. This June, Brown was hired as Marin Shakespeare Company’s first ever Artist in Residence, a full-time staff position that includes acting, teaching in juvenile correctional facilities, and working as a community ambassador.

One of 14 children from Jackson, Tennessee, Brown says the journey getting here has been difficult but rewarding.   

“The first couple of years inside were probably my darkest.  I was really struggling with accepting the possibility of getting out of it alive,” Brown says.  “It was easier to make the decisions that I made to not be a part of certain things, to hold that ground no matter what and taking that position helped me to be the person that I am today. I wouldn’t trade a single scar for what I endured helped me through that. I really gained a lot from the experience although I wish that I never had it.”

Dameion Brown. Photo courtesy Marin Shakespeare Company

As part of Brown’s role as artist in residence, he will play the title character in Pericles, a character who almost gives up hope when life throws such obstacles in his path as attempted murder, a shipwreck, and the loss of a loved one. Brown says the parallels in his own life prepared him for his new role. 

“Having lost family, particularly a daughter, a wife.  Leaving home because of tumultuous situations—those things served me and having a faith and trust in it can get better. I don’t know when but I know that if I keep going forward, it can get better.” 

In 1993, Brown was convicted of harshly whipping three of his five children, and permanently disabling one of them in what a jury found to be torture.  Brown, however, says it was an accident due to negligence.  Like Pericles, he was only able to have a complete relationship with his children after they were grown.

It was during his time in prison that Brown discovered acting—through Marin Shakes’ Shakespeare for Social Justice program at Solano State Prison.  The company has been going into prisons since 2003, starting with San Quentin, teaching drama therapy and acting to incarcerated men. 

“When I go into a prison, I go in just as a human being and I try to relate to the people I meet as human beings,” says Marin Shakespeare Company’s managing director Lesley Currier. “For the inmates, sometimes it’s been quite a while since someone has treated them like a human being because the staff prison often treats them like a number. Just extending that invitation to them is mind blowing for people who have felt like they have been thrown away by society.” 

Currier selected Brown to play Macduff in a May 2015 prison production of Macbeth. After he was paroled, Brown was invited to a performance of Richard III, where Marin Shakes artistic director Robert Currier brought him onstage and spontaneously suggested the possibility of his playing Othello in 2016. Despite the risks and criticism from some of the theatre community, Currier said they decided to take a chance. 

“Even though he didn’t have the same training and experience that many Bay Area actors have, he brings many things that many Bay area actors don’t have, “ Currier says, “He brings the experience of having spent 23 years in prison and everything that comes with that.”

Currier also says, “There’s a social justice issue at stake here. We think that if we can give opportunities to formerly incarcerated people that it shines a light on the issues in our criminal justice system that need to be fixed.”  

For his performance in Othello, Brown went on to receive the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award for Best Actor and was a finalist for a Theatre Bay Area award. The following year, he became a TBA award recipient for his performance in TheatreFIRST’s The Farm. He most recently performed in TheatreFIRST’s striking production of WAAFRIKA 123.  

In August, Brown has been invited to perform in India with Alakananda Roy who does transformative prison work.  

In addition to acting, Brown has worked with the San Francisco Sheriff’s office in a diversion program to help 18 to 25 year olds stay out of prison. In his new role at Marin Shakes he will teach drama therapy to incarcerated youth at two facilities in Stockton.

“I never ever imagined myself as acting so I’m pretty sure there are some of them who felt the same way and didn’t see themselves doing that and maybe I can encourage them to find something in themselves that they really appreciate and perhaps can take up some of that time that has been used to create problems in their life. “ 

Brown says he wants to impart the lessons he has learned to young people caught up in the criminal justice system.

“Even if things don’t turn out the way they that they turned out for Pericles, pushing forward is still worth it. No matter what the last 100 steps have been like, the next day is always another opportunity for something amazing to happen.”

Jia Taylor is a writer, actor, singer and filmmaker. Follow her on Instagram @jiataylor