Centinela prison produces playwrights
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