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Actors and Ex-cons

October 4, 2010

Imagine a play that takes you behind prison bars, to where race is the major dividing factor, and snitches are punished with death. Now imagine that most of the cast has actually spent time in prison, jail, or juvenile hall. Now imagine that it’s a musical.

Sound interesting?

These are the ingredients for Off the Hook, a production of the Poetic Justice Project, which seeks to change public opinion on crime and punishment through original theater.

The action of the play focuses on the series of conflicts that arise behind bars as prisoners try to either redeem themselves, or assert their position in a particular gang. Violence erupts as a result of the complicated code the prisoners abide by. This honest portrayal of prison conflicts is meant to open audience members’ eyes to the need for reform.

“We’re hoping that this play raises people’s consciousness,” said Johnathan Felch, who plays the leader of the “Woods,” or white prisoners.

Deborah Tobola, the playwright and artistic director, was inspired to write Off the Hook while working as an artistic facilitator at the California Men’s Colony. After last year’s sold-out run of Blue Train, which showed at the SLO Little Theater, she “wanted to do an ensemble play” that focused on the intricacies of prison life, said Tobola.

The actors themselves are excited to share their experiences, and also how arts have changed their lives, with the public. Each performance is followed by an open Q&A session with the cast and crew.

“We find what we’re doing not merely as theater,” said Guillermo Willie, who plays the character of Joker. For Willie, the arts programs in prison were what helped him turn his life around, and now he wants to spread that message. “We’re like troubadours.”

Through grants from the California Arts Counsel, LEF Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Off the Hook was able to tour throughout California, and wraps up next weekend in San Luis Obispo, at Unity Church. Tickets can be purchased at the Poetic Justic Project website.

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