Drama Therapy Saved My Life

Written by

Interview with LeMar “Maverick” Harrison: Returned Citizen, and former Shakespeare at San Quentin actor

Interview Conducted by Trevor Hoffmann, Marin Shakespeare Company

LeMar Harrison, or “Maverick” as he identifies himself, is a musician, lyricist, actor, and father.  Throughout the last 6 years, he has been a regular member of Marin Shakespeare Company’s Shakespeare class at San Quentin State Prison. He was granted parole in July of 2018, after serving 22 years of a 25-to-Life sentence. Though busy with an ongoing search for regular employment and a firm foundation for his life outside of prison, Maverick was kind enough to offer his time to Marin Shakespeare for an interview. The conversation covered Maverick’s crime, conviction, his time in California prisons, and his recent parole. Much of our discussion focused on the most recent 5 years of his incarceration, his involvement with the Shakespeare program at San Quentin, and his current work to establish his new life in the community. This interview was conducted on Friday, October 5, 2018.

Trevor Hoffmann: Hi, Maverick!  Thanks for offering your time today to talk.

LeMar “Maverick” Harrison: You are welcome – I’m happy to.  Thank you for asking me.

TH: So, couple formalities – do you prefer Maverick?

Maverick: Yes sir. Go ahead and just state my real name first, then from there on, call me Maverick.  For one, it’s my stage name.  But, two: I’ve learned that we live up to the names we have – the name informs who you are. LeMar was a scared kid who went along with things – and, yes, I know I am LeMar, but I like “Maverick” because I’m not that same person, anymore.  Maverick is who I am today — I do like to do the opposite of what everyone else is going along with.  It’s a name that helped me survive 22 years in prison – because if I’d been doing what everyone else was doing, man, I wouldn’t have made it.

TH: Got it.  Now, before we go on, I want to let you know that I will have plenty of questions, but if there are any that you do not want to answer, I need you to know that you’re not obligated to. Whatever you’re comfortable talking about, great, but I’m not here to pressure you or dig.

Maverick: Well, in that, Trevor, there’s something you should know about me: I have a belief that there is freedom in transparency.  I’m an open book now because I’ve learned that if I tell the truth now, I don’t have to worry about any lies later.  The truth is very liberating, you know?

TH: Ok – I appreciate that. Let me get some numbers – how long were you inside?

Maverick: 22 years, 2 months.  Been locked up since 1996.  May of 1996, to be exact.

TH: And, do you mind – do you mind sharing what it was you went away for?

Maverick: I participated in a murder-robbery of a drug dealer – matter of fact, he was someone who I knew.  Myself and another individual were part of an Asian gang.  And being that when you’re in a gang, there’s a code, believe it or not – there’s a code of ethics.  And if you go somewhere with somebody, and they do it, even though you may not agree with it, you went with it, so you’re part of it. And if you’re not part of it, you can end up… like the person who’s being violated.

TH: Ok. That’s, yeah, that’s pretty cut and dried and that sounds like a scary situation to be in.

Maverick: Yeah. Especially at the age of 19.  Because the male brain isn’t even fully developed until 24. And so, I didn’t even have the mental capacity to think of a way to extricate myself from that situation.  And I’m not even going to act like I was innocent, because yes, I participated.  I actually shot someone and took their life. I had adopted a belief system that told me that sort of behavior was acceptable.  From my community, from my household, from TV especially…and, uh, yeah…

(It is clear that Maverick is searching for what to say next.  I am no help, and there is a palpable pause before we both try again.)

TH: …I see –

Maverick: – it was horrible…

(I struggle silently with the weight of this for another few seconds, as Maverick appears to do the same.)

TH: … and I really appreciate your going straight to that, and your transparency.  Uh… from here on in in the conversation, we’re moving on to the present — but I don’t want to miss some of the steps and the challenges you’ve gone through along the way.

Maverick: Ok.

TH: So, were you at San Quentin the entire time you were away?

Maverick: Most definitely not – I wish I was!  But no – I started at SQ because they have what is called “reception”, there. When you come from County Jail after you’ve been sentenced, they send you to San Quentin for 3 – 6 months to be processed into the CDC database. Well, backing up: I was in the County Jail from ’96 to 2000, fighting my case — because I was fighting the death penalty, and by the grace of God I didn’t get it – but, I started at SQ in Reception, then they sent me to Corcoran – the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility or SATF, and from there I went to Tehachapi, and from there Old Folsom, then Solano, and then from Solano I ended up in San Quentin. That’s where I spent the remainder of my time and was blessed to receive a date for, uh – to be found suitable [for parole].

TH: That’s a lot of moving around.  Is that common, to move around that much?

Maverick:  Well, the movement is predicated on you, most of the time.  Sometimes they just move you because they’re changing the levels.  Because, when you get sentenced, and you’re introduced into reception, they have a process they go through to determine “How serious of a criminal is he? How much of a threat?” In that, they have Levels 4, 3, 2 and 1.  Level 4 being maximum security, guns everywhere, riots and everything – you move the wrong way, you’re going to get shot.  Level 3 is a little less, uhh, what’s the word? A little less harsh, but it’s still up there. And Level 2 is minimum security – the point where you start transitioning to be able to go home.  And if you’re on Level 1 you could pretty much just walk out if you wanted to – you’re on the street – almost.

(He manages to chuckle.)

Maverick:  But being that I was a “lifer”, my points were high.

TH: Points?

Maverick: The levels are run on a points system. If you have so many points – I think 45 or above – you’re a Level 4; if you have between a certain number below that, you’re level 3, and I think its… 19 and below is Level 2, and I don’t even know Level 1 because lifers aren’t eligible to go to Level 1.  But, yeah, I had 25 years to Life, so I started off with a lot of points.

TH: And did you – pardon my ignorance – did you have a series of applications for parole, to get to the release date, or was it just a waiting game?  How did that work?

Maverick: So, that’s due to your sentence, and how many years you have to do.  I was sentenced to 25 years to life.  Any sentence, depending on your sentencing, you have to do 85% of your time.  Some get half-time and only have to do 50%.  But 85% of 25-to-Life, the minimum is 21 years before I became eligible for parole.  It’s not a guarantee, but after that 21 years you are eligible to go to the board and have them assess how you’ve been doing and what you can do.

TH: I see.

Maverick: Now, I was one of the blessed ones, to have family praying for me. I’m a very spiritual person – I’m not religious; I don’t believe in religion. However, I believe in faith.  I have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and I have family who have been praying for me, whose faith surpassed mine.  So, by the grace of God, I didn’t have to go to the board more than the one time.

Now, part of that was due to a law being changed and the narrative of prisoners and what a prisoner is.  The Juvenile Lifer Bill changed the game dramatically for people who were in my position – people who went to jail at an early age, when they were teenagers – and because of science and the way that society has shifted now, the lawmakers changed the law. They came to the conclusion that, if your brain isn’t fully developed, then how can you make a fully developed decision in a strenuous situation like I – like the ones that a lot of us find ourselves in?  So, they created this bill which said that people 24 years or under, at the time of their offense, would be seen by a different committee than others applying for parole.

I went before that committee, and I just allowed them to know, “I’m not the same scared follower as I was 22 years ago.  I now know the casual factors as to why I committed my crime, and I now have tools in my belt to never be put in the position of having, or even wanting, to make that decision again.”  I have learned from the errors of my ways and my thinking, and I don’t succumb to peer pressure or bullying anymore.  And I showed them what my life is about now – making amends and taking accountability – and they looked over my files and all the things I’ve been doing while incarcerated, including work with youth, and Shakespeare, and they decided I was no longer a threat to society.  They allowed me a second chance at life.

TH: It sounds like they took into account what you were doing, and were willing to honor what you were doing while you were away.

Maverick: They didn’t only honor it – they wanted me out and essentially told me, “Society needs someone like you, especially the younger generation,” and I was like, “Ok. Uh – Thank you!” They said, “You make sure to go make a difference, and do that with the youth!” And I said, “Yes, Ma’am.”

TH: But, talk about pressure, though!  As we were setting up this interview, you mentioned how much you now have on your plate, and wanting to do justice to it all.  May I ask about Shakespeare, and the Shakespeare for Social Justice Program? I know you met my boss, Lesley, and some of the other MSC folks through the plays at San Quentin – is that right?

Maverick: Yes, that’s where I was introduced to Shakespeare – other than Romeo and Juliet on TV, with Leonardo DiCaprio.  So, I wasn’t really familiar with it, but a friend of mine told me I ought to be part of it.  From the day I walked in – in what, 2013? – so for the past 5 years, they’ve been an integral part of my life and a huge reason I was able to be found suitable.

TH: Wow.

Maverick: To tell you the truth, drama therapy pretty much saved my life. You know, because, I wasn’t who I am now when I first walked through that door and saw my fellow inmates pretending to be butterflies, or playing sound-ball.  I was in a dark place with no hope of going home, yet. I was addicted to drugs, and I just didn’t believe that change was possible.  They gave me a family and a home inside prison to escape the dark negative landscape that I was trapped in.  And they gave me hope that I was going to be home one day, and that I would one day be on the stage at Marin Shakes.

I began to believe that acting might be in my future – because I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was a kid.  Being in the household that I was in, my TV was my mother, my babysitter, my best friend – so I always wanted to be Robert Downey Jr. or “Marty McFly” or Will Smith – because their lives were always so much better than mine. My grandmother always said, “You’ve been acting an ass all your life – you might as well get paid for it!” And Marin Shakespeare gave me the opportunity to live out a dream, even in prison!

TH: And you were involved in a lot of artistic work, including podcasts and music at San Quentin, right?  How did those come about?

Maverick: So, I have always been musically inclined; I’ve always wanted to be, you know, a rapper.

(He chuckles dryly)

When I was moved back to San Quentin, I started working with – well, I call him my Little-Big-Brother, because he’s 12 years younger than me but he’s older than his age, you know – wise beyond his years: Antwon Williams – who we call “Banks”.  We have a media lab at San Quentin and we do Documentaries, PSA’s, and all kind of other stuff.  So down there, we were able to mix beats and stuff. He and I clicked, and became “partners in rhyme,”. We started creating positive songs for all the self-help groups going on at San Quentin – to musically document all the positive things that were going on there.  In that, I started working with the mayor of Richmond at the time.  I was part of a group called The Richmond Project – I’m from Richmond – and the Mayor used to come in because, at the time, Richmond was at war with itself.  So she said, “We need your guys’ help to calm the storm that’s going on out there.”

We created a song for our group, and for her, called “Richmond Rise.”  We recorded this song, which showcased me and a few other guys from different parts of Richmond – parts that were at war with each other at the time – to show that “Hey, if we can get along in here, and come together for a positive purpose in here, then you all can most definitely do it out there!”

I had asked Banks to create the music, and I produced and did the lyrics, and after we’d worked together on that, Banks said, “You have to get on this Shakespeare track!”  So that was actually how I first got involved with the Shakespeare group.

TH: Can you tell me about your first experiences with the Marin Shakespeare classes?

Maverick:  One of the first things I did was a “Parallel Play”.

[Parallel Plays are original works written and performed collaboratively by the inmates, inspired by the themes of the Shakespeare play they perform that year.]

In it, I created a rap musical about my own experience’s – how I got involved in a gang, and why, and how that had led to my crime and my time in prison.  I rapped the story, and the other actors performed the action.

After that, Lesley told me I should keep contributing musically to the Shakespeare shows, so I started scoring the Shakespeare plays.  Soon, Banks and I were working together on the sound-tracks of all the Shakespeare shows at San Quentin.  After each table-read, I’d go back over it, and figure out what music needed to be where.  We were able to make it ours, setting it to familiar music and rhythms. We had Shakespeare, but we created an “urban contemporary” version, so to speak.  The audiences would love it.

TH: Were there any particularly meaningful productions for you, at San Quentin?

Maverick: One show, in particularly, is still near and dear to my heart: The Tempest, in 2016.  I played Ariel, and I was going to play the part as “James Spader doing an imitation of Christopher Walken”.  Then Prince died.  And in watching the documentaries of Prince’s life and music, I realized (as I was tearing up, in prison, wondering “What is this salty discharge!?!”), I learned that Prince had had a bigger effect on me, and others, than I thought.  So, a few weeks before the play went up, we changed a ton of the music and I played Ariel as Prince – putting most of Ariel’s dialogue to Prince’s music.

Now, of course, we found out we couldn’t put that full show up on Youtube, because of all the copyright restrictions.  Lesley had to come to us afterwards and say, “Sorry guys, but we can’t use other people’s music at these shows – you’ll have to write your own from now on.” In fact, the video of that show that’s up on Youtube now is all cut, and most of my bits are cut out of it.

TH: But it did get noticed. That’s a sign that people are watching those videos – it’s kind of a mark of how much people around that time wanted to see your work and the work of the other guys who were doing those shows.

Maverick: Oh, I have never had so many free people come up after and tell me, “Thank you for this – I needed this right now!” They were all looking for an outlet to celebrate Prince’s life; it… it made me feel like I did something.

[”Free people”, as opposed to fellow inmates. Guests from the public are invited to see Shakespeare performances in prisons, provided they go through a process beforehand to obtain clearance.]

TH: By the way – I didn’t want to stop you, mid-story, because you just shared so many details I wasn’t aware of, but was at that show, and –

Maverick: No!

TH: It’s one of the two shows at San Quentin I’ve made it to so far, and it was a great show.  I was very moved.

Maverick:  Did you see “The Life and Death of Julius Caesar”?

TH: No. That one happened before I came to work for Marin Shakespeare, and before I knew that members of the public could see the shows in prison.

Maverick: Well, you’re there now, and that’s what matters!  But Julius Caesar – that one was the first time I really got serious with a Shakespeare part – also the first time they cast me as a dramatic lead, instead of a more love-struck pretty-boy.  But in Caesar, I played Marc Antony.  It was the first time I ever learned the gravity and the true impact of Shakespeare.  I delved deep, and studied the back story of Marc Antony and Caesar’s relationship.  It was the first time I’d ever had a chance to take on a character as myself – I genuinely felt Marc Antony’s pain.  He was being bullied, he had to make a choice to succumb or overcome peer pressure, he had to deal with hatred, betrayal, and his love for Caesar.  And all these same elements were major factors for me in committing my crime!

When all the Senators – Brutus and all of them – are standing around a dead body, telling Marc Antony, “You’re either with us or against us?  And if you’re against us, we’re going to kill you.”  That’s the same situation that I was in – except that Marc Antony chose better than me. He was a lot stronger than I was.

But I realized then that Shakespeare wrote about the human condition, in a way that transcends time and speaks to us still now. I went crazy for Shakespeare from that point on – and I went all in on that show, coordinating dances and fight scenes, working with a fellow inmate to play the show live; I actually paid another inmate in PIA – that’s the Prison Industry Authority — to make me a roman uniform – because they had that great, maroon-colored vinyl.

TH: You got invested.

Maverick: Absolutely. Now, Caesar was being played by an ex-skinhead/Nazi.  He used to call the shots on every yard he was on.  He had racial slurs tattooed all over his body – he had swastikas – he was the epitome of hatred.  But – and he’s said this too, in talks he’s given to PBS – when he came to the Shakespeare group, it helped him to transcend that.  His name is Azrael Ford, and we call him Big Az. He was 6-foot-four, 280 pounds of purebred peck – well, it’s a bad word he has tattooed on his neck. And we developed a bond, and a friendship. I started telling him “You need to be Caesar”.  This was his first time in Shakespeare, and he was saying “No, no, I just want a side part.” But we kept asking and eventually convinced him to take the part.

TH: That’s unexpected.

Maverick: Now, in the part of the play when the Senators stabbed and killed Caesar, Marc Antony gets left alone, speaking to the body.  And our directors, Lesley and Suraya, were going, “How are we going to get him off stage and into the back so we can put him on the gurney and wheel him in for the burial?”  And the light went off in my head. They were saying – “Maybe we can roll him on a sheet and drag him.” And I said to Big Az, “I need you to fall up stage at this angle, because I’m going to carry you off the stage and up the middle aisle.”  And he started laughing and basically said, “Yeah, ok, whatever,” because, at the time, I weighed 165 pounds, and he was thinking, “You’ll never in a million years be able to get me on your shoulder.” But for the next three months, all I did was bulk up like Rocky, and come the performance, I lifted and carried him out in shower slippers!  Everyone stood up and clapped at that.

And it wasn’t only in that moment. All his – now, they’re not ex-skinheads, many of them are still involved in that – but even they were coming up to me, every day after that, saying, “Bro- bro, that was great, bro!  I can’t believe you got him up on your shoulder and out of there – you’re the man!” And they’re hugging me and stuff – and this is not acceptable, for them!  But the Shakespeare program transcends racial lines and a whole plethora of things that are not acceptable in the prison culture.

TH: That sounds like a huge shift.

Maverick: And generally, the program gave me more than that.  It gave me the strength to stop using drugs, to get focused, to get back into my relationship with God, and all kinds of other stuff. It made my son and my wife proud of me, because most of the work is on the net.

[Video of Shakespeare for Social Justice performances in prisons are posted on Youtube, and links to performances and interviews are on the Marin Shakespeare Company website.]

So, when my wife had company picnics, and people asked about me, rather than have an awkward moment, she was able to say, “My husband is a performing artist – go to Youtube, check it out!”  So, it gave me something to be proud about.

TH: Well, there is a lot in that story that merits being proud about, and a couple things that you just mentioned are actually pretty big moments, on their own.

Maverick: Well, there was also a Ted Talk at San Quentin, featuring Marin Shakespeare Company and drama therapy, and I spoke on what both the Shakespeare Company and drama therapy had done for my life.  Big Az was on a PBS special called Life of the Law, and he told that same story, about me picking him up: he chose that one to be on PBS.  And that special got an Oscar.

TH: So it sounds like your idea for that scene, and your follow through on it, resonates with a lot of people.  I wish I’d been there. Now, we’ve got a few minutes left and I want to check in about what’s going on with you right now.  You’re out on parole, but there are still hurdles, I imagine.  What is it like being a recently returned citizen?

(Maverick’s tone shifts, and the words come slower now.)

Maverick: Well… it’s bittersweet, really.  I mean, I’m not in prison… I’m free to go about and live my life and be with my family and go to the beach and eat lunch when I want to, but in the same token, I am still in prison.  I don’t have the luxury of having 22 years to figure out life and get situated and stuff and – it’s expensive.  Especially for people trying to live in the Bay Area. And, you know, there aren’t too many people trying to hire an ex-con, let alone a felon, uh, uh, someone who committed murder, and I’m… I’m drowning.  I’m just trying to get a job, and meanwhile I’m doing odd jobs and just breaking my back because I’m afflicted with… I may look young, but my body — I feel like I’m Benjamin Button. I’ve got scoliosis and arthritis in my joints from all this manual labor – it’s just killing me – but just trying to create a foundation so that I can help myself and support my family and just live, it’s kinda hard.  I’m borrowing money for gas just so I can get to jobs, and I can’t even take my son out…

(Maverick’s voice catches, here.  He calmly pushes the words forward.)

…it’s, it’s a lot, you know? Trying to – it’s a lot.  And I just hope that I’m… able to weather… this storm, like I did prison… because I just want to… I just want to be able to ummm… make a difference, that’s all…

(It has become difficult for Maverick to get the words across.  This is understandably an emotional, and immediate, topic.)

TH:  …Maverick, I just want you to know that… I hear what you are saying and I respect how hard this must be.  You have all my hopes that things continue to improve and that you are able to keep establishing that foundation.

Maverick: …yup…

TH: In terms of work and jobs, since that’s really the next big thing, it sounds like: is there anything you’re particularly looking for?  Are you hoping to apply your skill sets in music, in acting and performing, or something else?

Maverick:  Well, of course, I would love to be an actor, but realistically, from what I understand, acting doesn’t really pay the bills unless you’re, you know, Robert Downey Jr. or somebody like that – or Adrian Grenier, from “Entourage”.  I mean, I’m trying to be realistic and right now, I know that beggars can’t be choosers – and I just need anything.  Right now I’m working for a company where I’m setting up for concerts and festivals and stuff and they throw me work here and there for $17/hour, and that’s barely… sustaining me.  Now, on the inside, I was the facilitator for a lot of self-help groups so anything in wellness or working with the kids – cause that’s really my wheelhouse, you know: Trying to allow other people to learn from my mistakes.  And doing so coming from a place of no judgment, shame, blame or guilt, but just allowing people to know that there is a way to be proactive about not allowing your past to dictate your future.  So, that.  Anything in the “helping” field would be great.  I love to drive, so if anyone needs a chauffeur.  But, really, anything, to tell you the truth.

TH: Well, you sound open to all possibilities and willing to do whatever works, at the moment.

Maverick: Basically, yeah.

TH: Well, Maverick, I really, really appreciate your time, and also your willingness to go to some of these very difficult places and revisit these things.

Maverick: Well, I know that anything you do put out there is going to come from a place of love, and I really appreciate you for taking your time in doing this with me, because, uh, man – I don’t have too many people who will – you know – because I’ve learned that time is really the greatest gift that you can give to anyone. And you gave me your time today and I appreciate that more than you know.

TH: Before we finish, is there anything you feel I’ve left on the table, or any other point or topic that I haven’t thought to touch on?

Maverick:  Well, my main thought is… I’m just thankful.  Thankful to Lesley and Marin Shakes for, uh, opening their family to me, because that’s exactly what it is.  And all the guys on the inside feel the same.  My love and my loyalty is to Marin Shakes forever, for what they did.  I really want to thank them for giving me the opportunity to do something that I and my son can be proud of.  Because really, everything I’m doing at this point is for my son and wife, who did help me get through my time in prison.  I’d like to be able to, at some point, take care of them instead of them always taking care of me. And the Marin Shakespeare family has given me the hope and a platform to make that all come true.  I’m just very thankful.

TH: Well, Maverick, I want you to know that I’m grateful for what you’re choosing to do and working towards right now. I hope that you have a week that begins to look up, and I hope those opportunities come right away.  As a similarly spiritual person, I want you to know I’m praying for you.

Maverick:  I sure appreciate that.

TH: Thanks so much for your time, Maverick.

Maverick: Thank you.  Have a good day.