Marin Independent Journal

By Cameron Macdonald |

PUBLISHED: May 29, 2024 at 3:12 p.m. | UPDATED: May 29, 2024 at 6:17 p.m.

“Titus Andronicus” is one of William Shakespeare’s most notorious plays, due to its gruesome violence.

But for the performers, the play was therapeutic, said many in the cast.

The tale of bloody revenge in ancient Rome that ends with all but one major character killed was performed by inmates at the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, who rehearsed for a few months before their only show at a prison chapel on Friday.

Cast member Kolby Southwood, who played Emperor Saturninus, said the cast was unsure whether they wanted to perform, “Titus” since many of his fellow actors experienced violence throughout their lives.

“We really wanted to tackle something that nobody has done before and kind of make it a positive learning experience,” he told the audience of visitors and inmates after the show.

The Marin Shakespeare Company produced, “Titus,” as part of its Shakespeare at San Quentin program, which is funded by the California Arts Council. Company members have invited inmates to perform in Shakespeare’s plays for more than 20 years. The company also organizes the Returned Citizens Theatre Troupe, which features actors released from prisons.

At San Quentin, company members assist with rehearsals, and provide props and costumes. They also invite inmates to produce “parallel plays” or scenes, songs and poetry inspired by the Shakespeare plays they performed.

“Shakespeare deals with so many things — anguish, heartbreak, betrayal,” the company’s managing director Lesley Currier said at their San Rafael center. “We’re always encouraging guys to express these emotions in a big way, it’s very freeing to have that emotional release in this world where showing emotions is dangerous.”

She hoped that the performance of “Titus” would encourage audience members to think about trauma in their lives.

“We are using the play to talk about what Shakespeare said in his own poetic way: if you don’t share your feelings, it will just eat you up,” Currier said. “We’re also hoping to entertain the audience, it’s a story you’re hanging on to see what happens next.”

Lt. Guim ‘Mara Berry, spokesperson for San Quentin, said that the recent performance of “Titus” helped showcase the participants’ creative expression.

“The storyline reflected how the incarcerated population deals with the responsibility of their offenses, while attempting to understand the impact they have on their victims and their families,” she said.

At the heart of “Titus Andronicus” is vengeance and how it drives people into madness.

The titular character is a Roman general who returns victorious from a war against the Goths, but he lost 21 of his sons in combat.

He begins a cycle of violence after he captures Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and has one of her sons executed to avenge his fallen children. Tamora soon marries the new Roman emperor, Saturninus. Her secret lover, Aaron, and her sons then commit a series of atrocities against Titus’s surviving children, which drives Titus insane.

During the story’s most infamous scene, Titus announces he will “play the cook” in his final act of vengeance against Tamora, who soon learns that her sons ended up in pies.

Erin McBride Africa, a drama professor at College of Marin, said she could imagine the play being an effective choice for actors who were convicted of violent crimes.

“On the one hand, it can be a study in the futility of violence and revenge,” she said in an email. “And on the other hand, with the popularity of horror flicks today, it could be an accessible way into working with poetic language.”

The San Quentin cast added their modern touch to the 16th century play by having commentators address issues such as violence and trauma between the acts. A few debated the portrayal of violence in movies as well as violent language used by parents and political leaders.

“When leaders normalize violence do people more readily accept it?” one commentator said in a microphone.

The play’s co-director Suraya Keating reflected on the commentaries after the play.

“We wanted to do that to create more intimacy with this really challenging cycle of violence and trauma, and open a kind of a dialogue,” she said.

A few actors paused the play to break the fourth wall. Tim McCrea, who played Titus’ doomed daughter Lavinia, spoke about sexual violence and its impact on victims.

Keating led a question-and-answer session between the cast and audience.

Inmate Marv Gibson said he was impressed by the play’s compassion for victims.

“There was a deep insight into a repentant mindset to never commit any crimes against anyone,” he said. “That’s the message I got from the play, that’s powerful.”

Cast members such as Steve Drown expressed their gratitude to the company. He has been incarcerated since his 1978 Marin County murder conviction.

“Some of the actors were having a lot of trouble with their roles because they had to dig into things they thought they had covered up,” he said before mentioning issues of hatred and anger. “That’s what drama therapy is about, that’s why we do this class.”

Fellow castmate Jay Kim, who played Titus’ surviving son Lucius, said that the play experience is an example of rehabilitation.

“What made this so valuable was being aware that everything we do and everything we say have ripple effects, the reverberations pour into the person next to us,” he said.

Curt Tofteland, founder of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, attended the “Titus” performance at San Quentin. He said that his program produced the play at a Kentucky prison 20 years ago. Toftleland noted the play’s theme of cyclical vengeance.

“There are so many themes in the play and also so many themes that resonate in the prison culture,” he said before the performance.

A small group of visitors from the public attended the San Quentin show and sat near the inmates at the chapel.

Novato resident Darlene Purcell said she knew that the play would be good.

“The arts are so important, it’s never too late to get started with that,” she said.