Over the course of eight years, Poetic Justice Project actors have played prison inmates, ex-cons, farm hands, even aliens.
But they’ve never portrayed themselves on stage — before now.
The original one-act play “Time Will Tell,” which premieres this week, features six formerly incarcerated cast members sharing stories about their experiences behind bars and on the outside in their own words.
“They’re very brave,” Deborah Tobola, artistic director and founder of Poetic Justice Project, said of the actors. “It’s very powerful for them to (go on stage), period, and then examine some difficult moments as well as transcendent moments. They’re going to get so much out of it, and the audience (will) too.”
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Based in Santa Maria, Poetic Justice Project works exclusively with formerly incarcerated actors to present plays about crime, punishment and redemption — “unlocking hearts and minds with bold, original theatre,” as the group’s motto states.
The nonprofit theater company is a program of the Santa Cruz-based William James Association, which provides arts instruction to at-risk youth, prisoners and people on parole and probation.
Poetic Justice Project’s newest production, “Time Will Tell,” explores the themes of incarceration and re-entry to society through a series of heartfelt vignettes. They’re paired with photographs and songs composed by current and former inmates at Folsom State Prison.
“A cast member joked that it’s ‘The Vagina Monologues’ for ex-cons,” said Tobola, who taught creative writing in state prisons and worked as an arts facilitator under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Arts-in-Corrections program before starting Poetic Justice Project in 2008. She now works with artists and inmates in five Central Valley prisons as an arts mentor.
“Time Will Tell” is the result of a collaboration among the actors, Tobola and director Leah Joki, an Arts-in-Corrections facilitator turned mentor.
Under the guidance of Joki and Tobola, cast members Leonard Flippen, Jorge Manly Gil, Caroline Hitch, Frank Souza, Morry Talaugon and Guillermo Willie participated in a series of writing exercises and Skype sessions exploring their experiences in and out of prison. (One of Tobola’s former students, who was deported to Mexico after finishing his sentence at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, also contributed writing.) Joki then combined their stories into a single narrative.
“It’s like raking your yard,” Joki explained. “You take out all the stuff that’s weedy and gnarly and look for the stuff that’s got some oomph to it.”
The director said she encouraged the actors to “‘Tell me your true story. You don’t have to make something up. Tell me something that’s real. That’s so much more powerful.’ ”
Joki, who lives in Montana, can attest firsthand to the challenges of turning a personal narrative into a play. She plays 18 characters in her one-woman show “Prison Boxing,” which premiered last year in Los Angeles.
“I found in that experience that the hardest character you’ll ever play is yourself,” Joki said. “You can’t hide behind a voice. You can’t hide behind a mannerism. You have to go, ‘Who am I and how do I come across to people? And how do I convey that in a way that is succinct and honest?’”
In a way, Willie said, playing oneself is a lot easier than playing a character. But, the talkative actor added, he sometimes has to remember to edit himself.
“I have a tendency to go on and on,” the Los Osos artist explained. “I can’t do that. What I (normally) take 40 words to say because I’m excited and animated, I need to say in 10 words.”
After appearing in four previous Poetic Justice Project productions, Willie said being on stage “feels more natural.” But, he added, there are still butterflies.
“Time Will Tell,” which debuts Friday in Orcutt, plays Saturday and Sunday at St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church in Arroyo Grande and July 1 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in San Luis Obispo. Performances in Santa Barbara and Studio City are also planned.
In addition, Poetic Justice Project will present the hour-long production at the annual Prisoner Visitation and Support training conference in August at UC Santa Barbara. Each performance is followed by an audience talk-back session.
“The general public has a certain opinion of prisoners,” one that’s influenced by the media and politicians, said Willie, who spent 38 years behind bars. He hopes that “Time Will Tell” will allow him and his cast mates to set the record straight.
“At every performance of every play, we have new audience members who are just amazed” to discover how much they have in common with the performers, Tobola said. “Every time I pass out those audience feedback forms, at least one person responds, ‘They are humans, just like us.’ …
“I used to get mad, but then I realized that’s really huge for people to come to that (realization), to see the humanity in formerly incarcerated people,” she continued. “For audience members to be able to connect with their hearts and minds is a huge, huge thing.”
‘Time Will Tell’
7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church, 301 Trinity Ave., Arroyo Grande
7 p.m. July 1
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 1344 Nipomo St., San Luis Obispo
1-800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com