Prisoners let their caged imaginations runs wild with emotional plays

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ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE, EVEN PRISON - Donovan State Prison inmates (l) Joshua Jones, Ryan Barber and Robert Kennedy participated in a play writing program for incarcerated men. Donovan officials would not allow cameras inside the yard, so Sun staff artist Andrea Aliseda sketched the dramatists during the event. ART BY Andrea Aliseda

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE, EVEN PRISON – Donovan State Prison inmates (l) Joshua Jones, Ryan Barber and Robert Kennedy participated in a play writing program for incarcerated men. Donovan officials would not allow cameras inside the yard, so Sun staff artist Andrea Aliseda sketched the dramatists during the event. ART BY Andrea Aliseda

Otay Mesa’s newest theater has a steep price of admission – 25 to life.

“Out of the Yard,” a series of 10 plays written by inmates at the maximum-security Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, had finally come to fruition.

Professional actors gave shape to untold truths and stories from the minds of men morally discredited in absolute confinement.

A program developed by the Playwrights Project and the William James Association, in collaboration with the California Arts Council and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “Out of the Yard” gave hope through art.

Cecelia Kouma, executive director of the Playwright Project, a San Diego-based non-profit corporation, said participants were given the opportunity to express themselves like never before.

“Our mission is to empower individuals to tell their stories through the Playwrights Program and theater productions, so that we can advance creativity, communication and literary,” she said.

In November inmates who volunteered for the program took their first of about 10 two and a half hour workshops in which they wrote and revised plays in collaborative group settings. Inmates were encouraged to write three scene, one act plays and give each other constructive criticism.

James Pillar, lead teaching artist for the Donovan Playwrights Project, said most participants were highly engaged. Others were withdrawn, but began to blossom with each successive workshop, he said, as did the entire group. He said working with the inmates was almost unreal.

“It’s really like you going into this other country,” he said. “(Donovan) exists in its own world – like it’s in the world, but it’s not really part of it.”

Kouma was also a teaching artist. She said the participants developed camaraderie and the group sessions gave the inmates a much-needed outlet.

“They would often say, ‘I love coming in here because when I’m in here, I forget that I’m in here, in prison,’” she said.

Pillar and Kouma acted in “Out of the Yard,” as did four other actors, Veronica Burgess, Brandon Kelley, Albert Park and Taylor Wycoff.

These actors, however, did not steal the show – possibly to avoid being incarcerated themselves.

Writers captivated the audience with their forays into fiction. Each play gave a glimpse into the mind of a person society had forgotten.

A diverse range of topics, the inmates’ plays covered almost the entirety of human emotion. “Love in Rehab” by William Farag and “The Dance” by George Jasso had themes of love and relationships. Others focused on families during times of war, like “Moonlight Knight” by Michael McCraken and “Patronicus” by Ryan Barber. And of course, there were plays of inspiration like Joshua Jones’ “Looking Up.”

There were even heartbreakers.

Robert Kenedy, 37, an inmate at Donovan, wrote a play called “The Boy and His Dying Father.”

In this play, a boy comes home with a straight A report card only to find his dad unconscious on their living room couch, breathing irregularly, with a empty bottle of vodka near his feet. The boy tries to wake his dad by shaking him and yelling in his ear.

“Wake up, Dad!”

No reply.

The boy calls his father’s girlfriend on the phone. She answers, tells him she is at work and cannot be bothered. The boy hangs up and then finds a note written by his dad. It looks like a will. He calls his dad’s girlfriend back, pleading with her to come home. She eventually does. Paramedics arrive, too.

Five days elapse and the boy is in a hospital with his dad, who remains unconscious and is now on life support.

If you make it through this Dad, the boy says, I will be the best son. I will do everything you taught me to do right. I will go to college, take care of my family and be a role model. But if you die, Dad, the boy says grimly, I will be bad, so bad I might even kill people.

A narrator then speaks – the father flat lines and dies.

The boy walks out of the hospital, forever blaming himself.

A front row of women shed tears and Kenedy seemed to appreciate the recognition.

After the production had ended, a brief meet and greet occurred between theatergoers and writers.

The inmates reveled in the opportunity to mingle.

Kenedy said his play was entirely “autobiographical,” even though his teachers encouraged him to fictionalize it. He also said he is currently serving a life sentence for a “bank robbery” and will probably never be released.

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WRITER’S CELLBLOCK – Robert Kenedy, a Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility inmate, and Bryan Barbarin, a professional actor, read a work in progress for “Out of the Yard,” a production made possible by the Playwrights Project and other organizations. COURTESY PHOTO BY Peter Merts

Kouma said inmates were able to examine themselves and their behaviors through the writing process. They were able to stop and think, she said, instead of just reacting to impulse in the moment of tension.

Pillar said Playwrights Program gives people the chance to explore artistic modes of communication that they may have otherwise never tried.

“We’re looking forward to moving this project forwards, onwards and upwards,” he said. Playwrights Project has been speaking with Donovan officials about “making it more accessible to more inmates.”

Robert Brown, community resource manager for Donovan, said inmates who finished the program have given him “nothing but positive feedback.”

Each time members of the public receive tours, he said, they are told the same thing.

“People will be surprised by the amount of talent behind these walls,” he said.

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