When William Palmer was 17, he put on a ski mask and tried to rob a man — a crime that landed him in prison for three decades. Now 49, he stood in a San Rafael, Calif., rehearsal hall practicing his original one-man play. The scene took place in a drugstore, and it revisited the moment that changed his life.
“Why do you need to purchase a ski mask?” Palmer asked, staring at an imaginary version of his teenage self. “You’re in California.”
Then Palmer turned, embodying the boy. “Who are you, and why do you care?”
“I’m security,” said the older, wiser Palmer. “You haven’t done anything wrong, but I wanted to talk to you. I wanted you to think: When you put on that ski mask, what are some of the things you could lose?”
“You mean when I go skiing?” the boy asked.
The older Palmer wasn’t indulging the lie. “We lose our mom and dad,” he said. “We never get married, we never have children.”
“Whoa,” the boy said, taking a step back. “Who’s ‘we’?”
“I am you,” Palmer replied. “Thirty-one years later. And I’m trying to get you to think, not emotionally but rationally. Because the decision you’re about to make is gonna cost you a large part of your life.”
Palmer continued the scene. He made some jokes about the future, telling his younger self that in a few decades there’d be a Black president. (The boy balked at this: “Are you on drugs?”) Then he looked up at the audience. “I want to tell my younger self that he needs to take a deep breath, to love himself,” Palmer explained. “I want to tell him about the injustice he’s going to face.”
The audience of seven — four actors, two acting coaches and a director — nodded their encouragement. They were all part of the Returned Citizens Theatre Troupe, a collective of former prisoners turned thespians. They’d come out on a Thursday evening in February 2020 for what was part therapy session, part creative outlet. Most of the people in the room could empathize with Palmer. They, too, had made a critical decision that cost them their freedom.
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