Thursday’s ‘Off the Hook’ Offers Unique Glimpse Behind Bars

Wanted: Actors. No theatrical experience necessary.

Required: Incarceration experience. Don’t bother applying if you haven’t done time behind bars.

Welcome to the bravely innovative Poetic Justice Project, a 2-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to helping parolees reintegrate into society through the arts.

On Thursday night, members of the project will perform “Off the Hook,” an original prison-based musical drama, at First United Methodist Church in Redding. The troupe visited Redding last year – the only non-prison town on a prison-town tour – and is excited about returning.

“We’re so happy to come back,” said Deborah Tobola, founder and artistic director of the San Luis Obispo-based Poetic Justice Project. “Redding is an awesome place. We met a lot of neat people.”

The group has a strong Redding connection. Retired Pioneer High School teacher Larry Greco Harris, a gifted poet and friend of Tobola’s, is writing detailed bios of the actors for the project’s website.

“Off the Hook,” which also will be performed at Pioneer High School, offers a unique theater experience, Harri

s said. For one thing, the actors will take the stage after the show to answer questions from the audience.

And watching ex-prisoners depict their former life on stage through fictional characters challenges viewers to think about this marginalized group, he said. “Generally, the last people the general public wants to get out there and help are ex-criminals,” Harris said. “They tend to be way down the caring list.”

Yet not caring about them is producing a world we don’t want to have, he said.

Harris has spent many hours over the past year-and-a-half listening to the life stories of men and women involved in the Poetic Justice Project. He travels to where they are and hangs out with them, tape recorder ready to capture the flow of conversation, always with an ear for the deeper truth behind their words. It’s left him with a greater sensitivity for the difficulties faced by parolees.

Larry Greco Harris

“I really respect the effort that these men and women have put into working their way back into society, dragging this ball and chain behind them — not just a ball and chain of probation and a felony conviction, but how do you build a life?” he said. “I’m impressed with what moxie that takes.”

As he continues to craft these real-life stories into pieces for the website, Harris said he’s been changed by the interactive experience. “I’m more hopeful about our society,” he said.

Guillermo Willie

One of the actors returning to Redding this week is 61-year-old Guillermo Willie. Articulate and emotional, Willie spent 38 years in prison. What started as a one-year drug-related sentence grew when he took part in the death of another inmate.

Willie describes himself as growing up in a hard-working Mexican immigrant family, with parents who had high aspirations for their children. “I always did what my mom and dad wanted me to do,” he said. “My job as a child was to make them happy.”

Guillermo Willie

When he was 18, he decided to smoke pot, and for the next couple of years, “it was a party. I just ran the other direction,” he said.

Soon he began to get arrested, and the pattern continued for years. Behind bars, he rejected options to further his education and otherwise better himself.

“Some of us have to beat our head against the wall,” he said. “Sometimes I feel as though it were something I needed to go through to get to where I am now.”

Despite the dark places his choices led him, Willie connected with two things while in prison that helped turn him around. One was a woman with whom he began to correspond when he requested photographs to practice drawing. He sent her some artwork, and she wrote back, curious about why he was in prison.

“When I responded to that letter, I painted this pretty picture of myself,” Willie said. “It was baloney. We continued a correspondence, and somewhere along the line I started feeling dirty. I felt ashamed that there was a part of me I couldn’t tell her about, and yet I wanted her to see me.”

Willie cries as he talks about it. It was a turning point for him, choosing to turn his back on his destructive patterns and walk a new path. He describes that woman as his “spiritual sister” and her husband as a brother.

The other thing that changed Willie, giving him purpose, was art. He used to draw as a child but stopped after someone made fun of his work. Years later in prison he was struggling to sketch tattoo patterns and suddenly remembered that he used to love to draw. Something clicked, and he found himself tapping into that long-dormant talent. Soon he was painting as well.

“I loved it,” he said. “That was what I did for fun.”

Art is also how Willie first met Tobola, who ran the Arts in Corrections program at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo from 2000-2009. She asked him to donate paintings to help with fundraisers, he said, and they stayed in contact.

Willie’s parole and Tobola’s retirement coincided. She had told him she wanted to start a project to help parolee artists reintegrate into society, so he looked her up when he got out. She asked if he wanted to audition for “Blue Train,” Poetic Justice Project’s first play.

“I got permission from my parole officer to do so,” Willie said. “I’d never acted.”

But the experience was rewarding, and when Tobola wrote “Off the Hook” in 2010, Willie decided, “I’ll do this again.”

Poetic Justice Project

Tobola’s background is in creative writing (she earned her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Arizona). For several years, she taught writing and college English courses to inmates at various facilities.

Deborah Tobola

When she began to facilitate the Arts in Corrections program, it included all disciplines – music, art and drama.

“I turned to theater because it was a way we could incorporate all the disciplines into a giant collaborative project,” she said. “We did an original play every year, and they were so well-received and powerful for the inmates that I thought it would be just as powerful for people coming out” of incarceration.

And so she launched the Poetic Justice Project in 2009. Largely grant-funded, it’s listed as a program of the William James Association and described on its website as a “collaboration of formerly incarcerated writers, artists, musicians and actors” that “creates original theater examining crime, punishment and redemption.”

Poetic Justice Project attempts to punch a hole in some grim statistics, Tobola said. At least 70 percent of those released from California prisons return, at a cost of nearly $50,000 annually per inmate.

“If we keep 20 people out here and not going back, we save taxpayers $1 million,” she said.

Parolees face many barriers when they come out of incarceration – including finding jobs and housing and reuniting with family.

“One thing I have heard over and over is, ‘I don’t want to go to Wal-Mart because I feel like everyone is looking at me and can tell I just got out of prison,’” Tobola said. “It’s this feeling of not fitting in or belonging to the community.”

Poetic Justice Project seeks to give new parolees a sense of connectedness at a crucial time. “The project gives people a way to contribute to the community and at the same time have a creative community of their own, with actors and technical people, so it’s like a big family,” she said.

The actors typically receive small stipends and are expected to show up for rehearsals and work hard. From May through October this year, the troupe will perform three plays (“Off the Hook,” “Of Mice and Men” and “Women Behind Walls”) in several locations.

‘Off the Hook’

Tobola wrote “Off the Hook” – with music by Shaun Collins and two raps written by actors – to explore aspects of prison life unfamiliar to those outside the system.

One of the characters is a young inmate named Lucky, who gets roped in by a Hispanic prison gang. “Before he realizes it he’s signed away his future and imperiled his own family,” Tobola said.

Another young prisoner gets mentored by a female corrections officer, who gets in trouble for it. A third story line introduces GQ, a protective-custody inmate. “He’s a snitch, so he basically has a death sentence if other inmates find out,” Tobola said.

She hopes the play sheds light on what goes on in prison environments and that it will challenge viewers’ thinking.

“People don’t realize the extreme racial segregation in prison and the difficulty it presents,” she said. “These prisoners don’t want to do anything more to mess up their lives but find themselves in situations where they’re forced to make decisions.”

Guillermo Willie, left, in “Off the Hook”

Tobola said she thinks the message of the play is that redemption is possible even in prison. She also hopes it serves as a warning for the at-risk youth for whom they perform. “Prison gets glamorized,” she said. “We want to help kids see it’s not what you think it is.”

Willie said he and the other actors take seriously their opportunity to influence young people at higher risk of criminal behavior.

“It might put something in their minds that causes them to think, is this really the road you want to go down?” he said. “It takes more than that to change, but if we do our part, and someone else does theirs, they might question themselves at some point.”

Power of creative expression

When “Off the Hook” came to Redding’s Bohemian Art Loft last year, Willie remembers talking afterward with a former correctional officer. Both of them got choked up, he said. “I know that every human being has a spark of something in them that can be ignited for the good of mankind,” he said.

Willie attends vocational training school when he’s not working with Poetic Justice Project. He hopes his own transformed life will speak to those who judge former prisoners harshly – or hopelessly.

“I understand that someone getting out of prison has to make their own choices,” he said. “Whether they end up sleeping under a bridge or whatever, they have to make the choice not to commit another crime. But when someone lends a helping hand, it makes a world of difference.”

For him and others, Poetic Justice Project has been such a helping hand.

“There are people in the project who would say that if it wasn’t for this, they would probably have gone back to drugs,” Willie said. “It’s been a wonderful blessing.”

Click the image to enlarge this poster for "Off the Hook."

The project is rooted in the power of creative expression to soften hearts and open minds. Both Willie and Tobola witnessed this in prison settings.

“When I took Arts in Corrections, there would be blacks, Mexicans, whites, and Hispanics,” Willie said. “Even if they had biases and prejudices, when they do art, they start finding something in common.

“Against their own will, they start seeing their commonality. One will ask another, ‘How did you do that? That’s good.’ Little by little, those barriers fall. People who would never talk outside of that art environment start talking. Regardless of what your friends tell you about someone, you’d say, ‘That’s an artist.’

“That’s because art comes from the heart, not from a point of intellect in the mind. The heart is what wins. With an artist, you’re relating from the heart.”

What: “Off the Hook” musical, followed by talk-back session
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: First United Methodist Church, East Street, Redding, CA (directions)
Cost: $7 for adults, $5 for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. Purchase tickets at the church, Holiday Market on Placer, or at the door.

Watch a short documentary about Poetic Justice Project here.


View the First United Methodist Church location in a larger map.

-Photos courtesy poeticjusticeproject.org.

-Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. She lives in Redding and can be reached at candace.freelance@gmail.com.

Candace L. Brown
Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. She lives in Redding and can be reached at candace.freelance@gmail.com.
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