Arts Beat: Theater program connects former prisoners with audiences

Dec 19, 2018

At the end of a prison sentence, there’s a lot to do—get a driver’s license, reunite with family, find a job. Acting in a play isn’t usually on that list. But not for formerly incarcerated people involved with a program called the Poetic Justice Project. Now in its ninth year, the Poetic Justice Project casts former prisoners in plays for community audiences.

On a Sunday afternoon, in a little strip mall in Nipomo, a group of actors runs through lines. Each actor in the circle of folding chairs has been to prison.

The goal of the Poetic Justice Project is to give formerly incarcerated people an avenue to connect with art, each other and their audience. And in nine years of shows, about 100 actors have been involved with the program.

This run-through is the first one for the 2019 season. The actors are working on the second run of a play called “Crossing the Line.”

Deborah Tobola, the director of the Poetic Justice Project, wrote the script. It’s the story of a former prisoner, Dennis Apel, who’s long been involved with—and arrested on account of—anti-war protests at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.

When the base prohibited Apel from its grounds and surrounding areas, including a section of Highway 1 where protests were sometimes held, Apel contested the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the ban.

During a later anti-nuclear proliferation demonstration, Apel was charged with trespassing at Vandenberg. He was sentenced to four months in prison in 2016, after he violated his initial probation terms.

While Apel was in prison, the Santa Barbara Independent published letters he wrote about his term in a column. Tobola read them all.

“I thought, this needs to be a play,” Tobola said. “And I could combine the letters with the scenes that he described.”

Apel is in the show—he plays himself—and he laughs as he describes how Tobola told him she was interested in writing a play based on his letters.

“I told her, well, you’re welcome to do that,” Apel said. “If you think anyone would be interested.”

The play looks at Apel’s time in prison, including two weeks in solitary confinement. But Apel’s sentence was light compared to most of his fellow actors—a mix of Poetic Justice veterans, and a few brand new faces.

Cheech Raygoza is new to Poetic Justice, and he’s beginning as an understudy for another actor playing a prison guard.

He said when he first heard Apel’s story, he was surprised to hear a prison would even give someone two weeks of solitary confinement—he’d only heard of longer terms. Raygoza’s incarceration included 17 months of solitary confinement, he said.

Despite the differences in their sentences, Raygoza respects Apel’s actions.

“He did it for something he believed in,” Raygoza said.

The first read-through gave Raygoza a good idea of what to expect from the show itself. But at the end of each performance, Poetic Justice Project has something called a “Talk Back,” where the production transitions from being a performance to being a conversation. Audience members can ask questions, and cast members share their stories.

Raygoza said he still wasn’t sure how that was going to go.

“The one thing I don’t understand, yet,” Raygoza said, “is how we’re going to talk to them—the people that are going to watch the play, the people who haven't been incarcerated. That's something I want to experience.”

After doing plays with Poetic Justice for years, another cast member, Leonard Flippen, had an answer for Raygoza: the talk back is often the most powerful part of a performance.

“We go from us and them to we,” Flipped said. “And those lines of privilege and oppression get blurred enough to where we can see each other's worlds.”

Tobola sees that connection between the cast and the audience as a crucial part of each show, and the project as a whole.

“A lot of people come out of incarceration and they feel like they don't belong,” Tobola said. Even running errands, Tobola said, can make people feel like they stand out.

Reintegrating into a community is an important step after incarceration. If formerly incarcerated people feel like they don’t belong in society, they’re at higher risk of heading back to prison, Tobola said. Tobola says very few of Poetic Justice’s actors return to prison.

Most of the room counted Poetic Justice as their first experience acting. They’d never have expected to perform onstage. But for many actors, being seen, and listened to in rehearsals—and in front of public audiences—is a transformative experience.

The play opens with a show at St. Barnabus’ Episcopal Church in Arroyo Grande in January. Then, until May, the Poetic Justice Project will put on shows throughout California.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible with funding from The Coastal Awakening Project, conserving a spirit of creative experimentation among Central Coast inhabitants.