Cen­tinela prison pro­duces play­wrights

Imperial Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY JULIO MO­RALES Staff Writer

SEELEY — A three-legged crime-fight­ing dog, street savvy spirit guide and a bor­der wall-build­ing pres­i­dent were among the cast of char­ac­ters who pop­u­lated the plays writ­ten and per­formed by Cen­tinela State Prison in­mates on Thursday.

Wal­ter Evans’ play, ti­tled “Beauty Is Brain Deep,” had as its pro­tag­o­nist an equally brainy and am­bi­tious Rus­sian model who wanted to help re­store her mother coun­try to its right­ful place atop the world’s hi­er­ar­chy. The play’s ref­er­ences to cur­rency mar­kets and me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion were also overt ex­am­ples of Evans’ pas­sion for eco­nomics and pol­i­tics.

Had he not ended up in prison, he said he would have likely ended up work­ing on Wall Street or in Washington, D.C.

“I’m more of a square than the front I put on around here,” Evans said.

The in­mates’ plays were part of the Out of the Yard play­writ­ing pro­gram hosted by the non-profit San Diego-based Play­wrights Project, which aims to pro­mote arts at the fa­cil­ity as a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive mea­sure. The 10 short plays per­formed Thursday by C Yard in­mates and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sional ac­tors capped 10 weeks of 2 1/2-hour classes where in­mates worked with the non-profit’s teach­ing artists to ready their plays for the stage.

As part of the Out of the Yard pro­gram, in­mates were in­structed to de­velop short plays that have char­ac­ters striv­ing to ob­tain some­thing mean­ing­ful and tan­gi­ble that re­mains tempt­ingly be­yond their reach.

Such nar­ra­tives are what a typ­i­cal au­di­ence can re­late to eas­ily, said Ce­celia Kuoma, Play­wrights Project ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

“It taps into our hu­man­ity,” Kuoma said.

In­deed, the in­mates’ plays on Thursday spanned a wide range of themes, from tales of redemp­tion, loss and re­gret, to un­re­quited love, com­mu­nity and pa­tri­o­tism. Talk­ing dogs, plan­ets and ghosts were also thrown in for added ef­fect.

“Cheese Heist,” a three­act play by in­mate Keith Fuller, was an ob­vi­ous crowd pleaser.

Its en­sem­ble cast in­cluded the up­start crim­i­nal rat Squeeks and his ag­ing crime boss Whitey, played by pro­fes­sional ac­tors, and Tails and Fibs, played by in­mates.

More than just a comedic crime ca­per, “Cheese Heist” fol­lowed Squeeks as he tran­si­tioned from a young crim­i­nal to Whitey’s suc­ces­sor and fi­nally to a le­git­i­mate busi­ness­man and com­mu­nity bene­fac­tor.

“I just sat on my bed and made it up,” Fuller said. “It comes kind of easy for me be­cause I al­ready write.”

A fan of the ur­ban fic­tion genre, Fuller said he is close to fin­ish­ing a novel of his own about a street­wise char­ac­ter called Machi­avelli Capone whose re­lease from prison presents him with a whole new set of chal­lenges.

“But in the end, ev­ery­thing works out,” Fuller said.

Thursday’s per­for­mances marked the first time that pro­gram par­tic­i­pants were able to use one of the fa­cil­ity’s rel­a­tively spa­cious vis­i­ta­tion rooms, as well as have a cou­ple mem­bers of the pub­lic in at­ten­dance.

The play­writ­ing pro­gram’s in­volve­ment was also made pos­si­ble by grant funds that have be­come in­creas­ingly avail­able as a re­sult of voter-ap­proved Propo­si­tion 57, said Ken Phillips, Cen­tinela State Prison com­mu­nity re­source man­ager.

“That en­sures we can have a bet­ter va­ri­ety of pro­grams for the in­mates,” Phillips said.

Fol­low­ing Thursday’s per­for­mances, a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion was held be­tween the play­writ­ing in­mates and the non-profit’s in­struc­tors and vis­it­ing ac­tors.

When in­mates were asked about the ben­e­fits of their par­tic­i­pa­tion, Dmitri Hawkins jok­ingly said he was sur­prised to find out he was so tal­ented.

Hawkins, whose “Beau­ti­ful Strug­gle” play pro­filed the life of a re­formed gang mem­ber at­tempt­ing to start a new life and raise a child, said the pro­gram fur­ther helped hone his de­sire to write an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

“It was pretty much a starter step,” Hawkins said.

Cen­tinela State Prison in­mates par­tic­i­pat­ing in the fa­cil­ity’s Out of the Yard play­writ­ing pro­gram read di­a­logue aloud dur­ing a play per­for­mance on Thursday. JULIO MO­RALES PHOTO

A Cen­tinela State Prison in­mate takes a bow af­ter his play was per­formed as part of the fa­cil­ity’s Out of the Yard play­writ­ing pro­gram on Thursday. JULIO MO­RALES PHOTO

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