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Shakespeare Saw These Actors Through Prison and Onto Center Stage

by Cinnamon Janzer

A group of men in various costumes cheering.
Photo Credit: Marin Shakespeare Company
The cast of Macbeth at Solano State Prison in 2015.

For Pharaoh Brooks and Dameion Brown, acting in prison offered an escape from the monotonous minutiae of daily life and created a path through life beyond bars.

It was 2014, eight years into Pharaoh Brooks’ incarceration in the California prison system and he was determined to make the most of his time.

A person of dark skin tone wearing a toga costume.
Pharaoh Brooks as Julius Caesar in the Marin Shakespeare Company’s production of Julius Caesar at Solano State Prison.

He had taken up composing poetry and writing children’s books when he came across a poster from Marin Shakespeare Company. It was advertising a production of Julius Caesar taking place inside the prison’s walls, performed and produced entirely by and for the men incarcerated in Solano State Prison.

Thinking that it would help advance his writing, Brooks signed up. After being enlisted to play the titular role in that first production, he went on to perform in six more plays before his release late last year.

This year, he’ll keep up the practice he picked up in prison when he performs in productions of Julius Caesar for local school groups this spring. “It’s just been so much more than what I intended when I signed up for it,” Brooks says.

Acting became Brooks’ way of escaping prison life. Even though some of his friends and acquaintances throughout the prison questioned his participation, he stuck with it.

“When we performed, we had incarcerated individuals watching. There were some guards there, too,” he recalls. “But when you’re watching Shakespeare, everyone is just a human being watching something. It just made us people.”

Eventually CNN came to do a story on Shakespeare in Prison, the Marin Shakespeare Company effort supported in part by funding from Shakespeare in American Communities. That’s when the sentiment really started to change.

“Even guards had seen it and were talking about it,” Brooks says, referring to the CNN piece. “It definitely had an impact on the prison.”


Dameion Brown, also previously incarcerated at Solano, performed in that first production of Julius Caesar, too. In fact, he recalls being the first to sign up. Brown was determined to spend his time in prison supporting his fellow incarcerees in hopes for a kind of karmic exchange in which his children would be well taken care of in his absence.

Brown liked to be the first person to sign up for new programs, including Shakespeare in Prison at Solano State Prison in 2014. That way, he thought, others would be more encouraged to follow suit seeing that someone else had already committed.

He found the first session to be disarming, entertaining, and enjoyable. Months of rehearsals came and went. As the debut neared, Brown got nervous. “As we got closer, when the costumes came, I was even more nervous. I just wanted to get it over with,” he says. Brown expected nothing but heckles from the hardened crowd.

“But there was no heckling. Instead, it was something like admiration. They, even the guards, saw us in a different way than they had seen us all those years,” Brown recalls. “It went off without a hitch and it was collective jubilation. It made a lot of people feel differently about acting in a really heavy way.”

“When you’re watching Shakespeare, everyone is just a human being watching something. It just made us people.”

A stage full of actors dressed in Ancient Greek-inspired outfits.
Photo Credit: Marin Shakespeare Company
Marin Shakespeare Company’s 2018 production of Pericles, starring Dameion Brown as Pericles.

Brown’s incarceration ended the following year, but his passion for acting did not.

Soon after he was out, Lesley Currier, Marin Shakespeare Company’s managing director who worked with Brown inside Solano, picked him up from the halfway house where he was staying and brought him to a performance of Henry IV, starring Danny Glover—an actor Brown grew up watching on TV. “He was the first Black superhero on television. I have a lot of respect for him,” Brown recalls of that evening in 2015.

Brown met Glover after the show. He still recalls the advice Glover gave him for the performances he’s continued acting in since. “What are your connectors?” Glover asked Brown about his upcoming portrayal of Othello, his first post-prison performance. “Was he not a prisoner? A slave? Was he not betrayed? Your task is to share the truth of those things.”

Despite feeling out of his depth with professional actors, Brown stuck with the role that ultimately earned him a Best Lead Actor award from the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle in 2016. Looking back on his award-winning performance, Brown says that Shakespeare in Prison and Glover “gave me everything I did on that stage.”

Photo Credit: Marin Shakespeare Company
Dameion Brown as Othello in Marin Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello.