James Parham stood with his hands clasped behind his back and spoke in a strong voice at an even cadence: “To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.”
He had a handful of audience members Monday morning at Spin Cafe as he became the third, and perhaps final, challenger in the new Hamlet Challenge. The 57-year old homeless man successfully recited all 36 lines of the main character’s fourth soliloquy from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and earned a $100 check on the spot.
Parham never stumbled and was even unhampered by the sound of the phone ringing in the middle — an occurrence during each of the three performances for the challenge.
Parham said he’s always had a good memory and can still recite pieces of the Gettysburg Address that he learned in elementary school. However, his strength had always been in math and science. In school, he considered learning about things such as Shakespeare “impractical.”
“But as you get older you grow, start reading more and evolve,” Parham said.
He saw a posting about the challenge and reward at the daytime center for homeless individuals and talked about it with Mark Martenson, support specialist for Spin and organizer of the challenge. Parham went to the library, downloaded the piece and started reading it on the bus.
He said within 24 hours he had the lines memorized, so he spent the weekend before his performance working on delivery. The more he read the words, the more he gathered about the their meaning.
“It’s really deep,” he said. “I really enjoyed it.”
This is exactly the result Martenson was going for. Around three months ago, he was given money to use for the center, which offers food, coffee, laundry services and other resources.
Martenson had recently watched a documentary about introducing Shakespeare in prisons and witnessed how it altered the inmates’ attitudes and perspectives.
“It changed everything,” he said. “People can find a new search for meaning.”
He’s seen this happen in his own life as well. When his stepdaughter was 14 years old, he offered her $100 if she memorized the same soliloquy. She didn’t just memorize it, he said, she dissected its meaning. She gained a new appreciation for literature and a cool party trick, he said.
He hoped to replicate those results in the clients at Spin.
Bless Paquette, a young homeless woman, was the first to deliver the speech. A former theater major, she gave an “impassioned and flawless” version of the famous lines, Martenson said.
Scott Sayre was the second, and although his motive was really that he needed the $100, he also managed to pull it off, Martenson said.
In speaking with Parham however, Martenson sees the kind of difference in him he was looking for. For Parham, it was the sort of thing he wouldn’t have seen himself doing before.
“You never really appreciate your strengths when you’re younger,” Parham, said, reflecting on his school days. “… I would’ve never ever tried this 20 years ago.”
The reward will go toward his storage and phone bill, Parham said. It won’t leave him much to pocket, but he said he was grateful for any amount. Parham’s was the last check set aside for the challenge.
Martenson said he hopes to continue it, but he would hope to find outside sources of funding. He said he is considering using his private funds to keep it going if there’s continued interest.
He believes in poetry’s abilities to impact the lives of disaffected individuals, and he hopes the audiences at each of the performances were inspired. He admitted he can’t be sure all of the clients who witnessed the recitations got everything he had hoped from it, but he thinks the process added “beauty and meaning” to Parham’s life.
Even if it only impacted one person, Martenson said, “that, to me, is a success.”
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.