‘Women Behind the Walls” is a play with music that tells the stories of women who are serving time. But this play is nonfiction, and the actors are women who have previously been incarcerated. Playwright Claire Braz- Valentine wrote it in 1995 after she taught creative writing to inmates and incorporated their stories into the play. It was first performed in state prisons in Chowchilla and Soledad.
Now the Poetic Justice Project, based in Santa Maria, has added music and is presenting the play on the Central Coast. The women in the stories include one whose husband hid drugs in the hubcaps of her car, another who is serving a life sentence for shooting her abusive husband in the leg. Others are composites of other women’s stories.
The Poetic Justice Project was founded to use the arts, particularly theater, to help men and women reintegrate into life outside the walls, explained Deborah Tobola, founding artistic director.
She worked for 12 years teaching writing and theater in California prisons, and she produced six original plays at the California Men’s Colony. Her work was part of the Arts in Corrections program, which has now been discontinued due to budget cuts. The plays were performed by inmates in prisons around the state.
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Tobola said she often wished for a reentry program to which she could refer parolees, a resource where they could continue to pursue some of the new skills and interests that they had learned in prison. In 2009 she left the prison system and founded such a program, the Poetic Justice Project.
“Off the Hook,” written by Tobola, is one of the plays that the project brought out of the prison system to tour in communities. It was based on experiences of men in prison and performed by men who had been incarcerated. It received rave reviews and generated positive discussion, Tobola said.
“While we were touring ‘Off the Hook’ in Redding, Claire (Braz-Valentine) came up to me and said, ‘I have a female version of this play,’ ” she said.
It was “Women Behind the Walls,” and Tobola made it a Poetic Justice project, adding music by Shawn Collins, who had done the music for “Blue Train,” an earlier project play.
“Shawn is brilliant,” Tobola said. “He takes the script and turns it into a magical collaboration.”
She wanted a female director, and found Molly Stuckey, who had majored in theater and theology. The playwright saw the new version when it was performed in Chico, and said she loved it.
The Poetic Justice Project’s motto is “Unlocking hearts and minds with bold, original theater.” The motto works both ways, Tobola explained.
“For the actors, it’s powerful for them to be accepted by the audience,” she said. “They have felt stigmatized.”
Some of the actors have continued in community theater, and it might surprise area theatergoers to know who they are.
And for the audience, the performances may make people feel differently about men and women who have been incarcerated and are seeking to return as part of the community.
“We hope to enlighten people to this invisible subculture,” Tobola said.
Tobola, a prize-winning poet and writer, said her entrance into the arts program in prisons was serendipitous.
“I was a late-returning student with a BFA and MFA in creative writing. University jobs were disappearing at the same time as the building boom in prisons.”
She lived in Tehachapi and someone suggested she check out the arts program in the prison. She had preconceived notions about prisoners, she said, but she was pleasantly surprised.
“The students were more engaged than the ones in my freshman composition classes,” she said. They also had a different attitude because there were no grades.
She started the program with poetry, but it turned into theater because theater was more collaborative, with music, acting, writing, and set construction.
“It’s such a powerful vehicle for inmates,” she said.
Although women account for only 7 percent of inmates in California, the female prison population has grown by 340 percent since 1986. More women are sent to prison for nonviolent drug offenses than any other crime.
After the performances of “Women Behind the Walls” the cast and director discuss the play with the audience. With the actors out of character, their experiences are personalized. The feedback often shows that the audience has been able to see people who have been incarcerated in a new light, Tobola said. One woman said, “There but for the grace of God go you, I, us.”