Poetic Justice Project advances social justice by engaging formerly incarcerated people in the creation of original theatre that examines crime, punishment, and redemption.
Poetic Justice Project, a program of the William James Association, began in 2009 with the vision of unlocking hearts and minds with bold original theatre.
Poetic Justice Project advances social justice by engaging formerly incarcerated people in the creation of original theatre that examines crime, punishment and redemption
Poetic Justice Project Advisory Board
John Battalino, Actor and Director
Milly Benson, Retired Juvenile Services Nurse
Traci Mettler-Bradbury, Media Consultant
Rich Sheppard, Actor
Cynthia Semel, Retired Prison Educator
Phil West, Community Volunteer
Guillermo Willie, Artist
Part I: Daddy, I like eating at the joint
by Larry Greco Harris
If you were to judge director Deborah Tobola by appearances, a relatively petite white woman with a low-volume voice sitting in the command seat of a circle of grown men, ex-offenders of multiple races, some with backgrounds from gang-ridden inner cities, you might be tempted to judge her as unqualified for such a leadership position. And you would be wrong.
Let’s scratch a little below the surface and examine some of the earliest seeds planted and events experienced that aimed Deborah toward her current leadership role as founder and artistic director of San Luis Obispo County’s Poetic Justice Project.
As a toddler, Deborah was already in prison with her father. A decorated Korean War Marine veteran, Charles “Chuck” Tobola took a job at the California Men’s Colony while attending Cal Poly on the G.I. bill. He was assigned to the prison’s new West Facility. At the time, prison staff could bring their families to CMC’s cafeteria for good, cheap food. When I was three years old, that’s where I had my first meal out, Deborah says. And I said, Daddy, I like eating at the joint!
Thus began little Deborah’s unlikely road that led her to a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and ultimately back to the same prison she’d visited with her father. Along the way, she developed the leadership skills necessary for contributing to the lives of grown men inside (and now one step outside) the gates of the California state prison system.
Part II: A Father’s Impact
The impact of a father’s absence on a son is one of the primary themes embedded in the musical play, Blue Train, sponsored by the Poetic Justice Project of San Luis Obispo. Deborah Tobola, though obviously never a son, is nevertheless qualified to participate in and even lead this father conversation, not because she had an absent father, but because she had one who was present.
Besides introducing Deborah to the prison environment where he was employed, Charles Tobola served as a task-master, coach and mentor who refused to psychologically box his daughter into some traditional 1950’s role of the little-woman-behind-the-man. He saw her as an intelligent individual in her own right, and he expected her to live up to the innate abilities he obviously saw within her.
I was my father’s eldest daughter. We had a close relationship. We would talk about politics and religion and literature. During these conversations he’d suddenly stop me and say, Don’t express your miserable opinion until you’ve read Sinclair Lewis . . . or Hemingway . . . or Dorothy Parker . . . or e.e. cummings. It was a wonderful mentorship, and I don’t know what I would have done without that in my life.
One can never be certain where we get our personality traits nurture? nature? but Deborah’s father wasn’t going to sit on the sideline and hope for the best. He was raising a thinker, a doer, and as it turned out, a leader. It’s amazing to think how powerful the actions of an adult can be on a kid.
I remember when I was in eighth grade, he was on a business trip to San Francisco. Now, in our family my mom did all the buying of Christmas and birthday presents. But when he came back from that trip, he had a present especially for me. It was a Hermes Rocket portable typewriter. And I just can’t tell you how much that did for me. It was an affirmation from my dad that said Yes, you can be that writer that you want to be.
Along with nurturing her intellectual appetite, Charles Tobola passed along his keen sense of social justice, encouraging his daughter to fight the good fight. “He also taught me not to give up,” Deborah says. “Whoever said it would be easy? Whoever said it would be fair? was his mantra. I took it to heart. I call it persistence.”
After her original introduction to prison as a child, Deborah’s family would travel extensively. She would not re-enter the walls of a prison again until 40 years later. After working as a journalist, she returned to school and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Around the time she returned to California, the state was spending less on universities and more on prisons. In addition to occasional college English courses, she taught creative writing in the California Correction Institution in Tehachapi and North Kern State Prison in Delano.
In 2000, she took the position of Institution Artist/Facilitator in the Arts in Corrections program at the California Men’s Colony, to the site of her first lunch date with her dad. Charles Tobola died years before his daughter began her life-changing work in the prison. But as far as the evolution of her vision, her mission, her leadership skills and her creation of this emerging Poetic Justice Project, Deborah, along with her entire family agree: Dad would have just loved this!
From Barnacle to Bird
Part I: Following His Own Lead
by Larry Greco HarrDuring the first 12 years of his prison incarceration Guillermo Willie was as indistinguishable from the hardened world he lived in as is a barnacle from its rock.
No one could have guessed then, not even Guillermo himself, that inside his prisoner-hardness pulsed something softer that in time would lift him up, light as a feather, off the rock and over the prison walls to freedom. But the transformation would take nearly a lifetime.
It was supposed to be a one-year sentence; it just stretched out to 38, Guillermo says matter-of-factly, sitting on a log in the woods, his eyes serene, searching a spot in the air above his head where the memory seems to float. As Guillermo speaks, he allows his words to arrive slowly, deliberately, the way an artist working in oils might mimic the movement of water with fluid but measured sweeps of a brush. As a child of loving parents in the Riverside area of Southern California, there were no red flags that said, Watch out, this kid is headed for prison.
Prior to the time I started getting loaded, smoking pot, when I was 18, I would go to church with Mom and Dad. I would go on Sunday morning, Sunday night, Tuesday night, Thursday night. I would go to school and never dated. Mom and Dad didn’t allow that.
Dad came from Mexico, and he worked himself from being a janitor to retiring as a draftsman. He learned English. He learned drafting. He had these aspirations for me and for my two other brothers. His daughters were supposed to be housewives, but his sons were going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist.
They didn’t want us to be like him and work as a janitor. So we’d live in one neighborhood and when we were better off, we would move to a so-called better neighborhood. We would go from one house to another one, to another one, to another one.
During those years I learned to make Mom and Dad happy. And what made them happy made me happy. I thought to myself, Mom and Dad are teaching what’s best for me. I never questioned, What do I want? What about Willie? What about this character inside who might need something? That was never a question.
I never wondered about anything like this until I smoked pot. I don’t mean that pot opened my mind. I just liked it. I had this fascination with it. Here I was living this family life, and then it was the late 60s, and you’d hear about it. There were pictures in the newspaper of the officer in Berkeley smoking a marijuana cigarette on the courthouse steps. You’d hear about acid. And I started to wonder. It’s not like someone pulled me there. There was just something inside of me that made me curious.
One day there was a guy who gave me a ride to school, and I heard him telling somebody else that another guy had come into his gas station and offered him a joint, but he didn’t take it. And I told him, Hey, the next time he offers you one, take it and give it to me. The guy said Why? Are you interested? And I said, Yes I am!
Thus, with no more than his own curiosity to herald it, with no one to blame or congratulate but himself, and breaking his parents hearts, Guillermo followed his own lead, took an about-turn, and built a wall around his life.
Part II: Bricking the Walls of His Own Prison
The first walls around Sing-Sing, one of the oldest prisons in America, were originally constructed out of stones from a nearby quarry. Those stones were cut, carried and hefted sturdily into position by the very prisoners who were to be caged there. It could be argued that Guillermo Willie, beginning in the late 1960s, began adopting beliefs and making choices that one-by-one-by-one became the impenetrable building blocks in the high walls of his own thirty-eight year incarceration.
Guillermo sums up how he became a prisoner in two words: I jumped! He went from a young man who minded his parents, attended church and carried an armload of books to and from school every day into a full blown, drug involved drop-out in the space of a few months.
Once I got arrested for drugs the first time, after that I would get arrested, arrested, arrested I don’t know, 15, 20, 30 times. And it was all drug-related or under the influence stuff. But I didn’t care. It became fun.
It also became Guillermo’s routine. He’d get arrested, get put in county jail, get out, go back to doing the same things, sleep at other people’s houses and then get arrested again.
If I couldn’t live anywhere else when I got out, I’d go home. Mom and Dad always accepted me. I’d stay there, but I wasn’t a very good brother to my brothers and my sisters, I wasn’t a good son to Mom and Dad but I didn’t care. I was going to live my own life, and that’s all there was to it.
Guillermo started smoking pot, which opened for him a world of other drugs. And as usual, he didn’t just tippy-toe into the experience he jumped, immersing himself. I actually shot reds (barbiturates) before I even took one as a pill.
â€œI started running around with this ex-motorcycle club guy. He was older. He worked in a gas station along my walk to school. He was into drugs, and he got me totally into them. But I was game. It was me who asked him one day if he had any pot, and he said to come on by later. And I did.
Guillermo could not see it at the time, but each of these decisions, made one-by-one so clearly and forcefully, were actually quarried bricks that he was using to build the walls between him and his own freedom. Outside observers, reasonable people, might be incredulous about such behavior, asking: How could someone do that to himself?
It is true that many people make bad choices in their young lives, but most often they learn from them and gradually change their trajectory. They will unwisely pick up some of those bad-choice bricks, but eventually one will drop on their toe or hit them in the head, and they wake up to adjust their behavior. So why didn’t Guillermo adjust? Why such determination and consistency in making bad choices? How could anyone turn a bad-enough one-year drug sentence into more than one-third of an entire century in prison?
The answer, according to Guillermo, might lie not so much in those bricks chosen, but more in themortar that he used to bind those bricks into the rock walls that became the backdrop for the tough barnacle he was becoming. And what exactly was this mortar he used to bind these bricks? quite likely it was the beliefs Guillermo held in his mind.
Leonard David Flippen
by Larry Greco Harr
Leonard Flippen, like all convicts, was assigned a prison number that will follow him and follow his name for the rest of his life. However, quite another number with an entirely different purpose was bestowed upon Leonard long before his involvement in a long string of gang and drug related crimes. It was the number 4, written. Leonard David Flippen IV was born on June 3rd, 1961.
I’m a military brat, Leonard says in the crisp, forceful and articulate language that usually accompanies a position of authority, I was extremely lucky in that area. I lived a very sheltered life up until the age of eleven. My family traveled, so I was exposed to other cultures, and I learned to adapt to them very well.
When Leonard speaks of his military father, he speaks of a man who would probably have raised his only son with an iron authority inside a framework of tradition.
My father was a strict disciplinarian. He was mean. Now deep down inside he was a good person, but on the outside he was a terrifying individual. I think that’s where a lot of my authoritarian stuff comes from.
It is unclear what path a young African American boy being raised in a multicultural environment overseas in a two-parent family might choose. But one would assume that his first career choice would not be drug-running pimp.
My parents divorced when we were in Germany. My mother left, and she moved my three sisters and me to Atlanta, Georgia she moved us to the projects of Atlanta, Georgia. So here’s this eleven year old kid with this cultured life who suddenly finds himself in the hood inside a house full of women with no father.
As was his skill, Leonard adapted to his new environment. But without a dad, and with the dominant male figures in the Atlanta Projects engaged in the business of big city poverty, Leonard very quickly turned to a life of crime.
That’s when my criminal tendencies started. I can remember aspiring to be a pimp. I was going to be that pimp, and I was going to be a hustler. That’s what the men there did, and that’s what I was going to do.
So with the bravado of focused intention that Leonard still displays today, that is exactly what he did at least until his mother, fearing for his life, sent him to live in sunny California. At her request, Leonard packed up his name with its now hollow number (hollow because it no longer spoke of bloodlines or traditions or paternal guidance), and he moved himself to California.
There, ready to be a man but with no model of fatherhood to guide him, Leonard David Flippen IV would instead be scooped up by a brotherhood of Crips, crime and crack cocaine.
….this true story to be continued….
Part I: The Landscape of the Body
by Larry Greco Harris
Take any man who has lived past the age of 30. Strip him naked in the dark. Then with a small, intense flashlight, take a photographic journey up, down and across every square inch of the structure and skin of that man’s body. Hover over each aberration in that landscape, each added mark, each discoloration, distortion, wrinkle and tattoo. These are the doors that, when opened, tell the tale of a man’s life.
If the man is an ex-convict, a felon, there is some likelihood that he will point to a tattoo as the most significant of those markings. If not that, he may lift to the light some battle wound as a badge earned in a hard life where enemies were met and threats were addressed. Such markings, though meaningful, are not unusual.
What is unusual is one vicious little scar sunk into the body of William Lamar Brown a mark inflicted not by an enemy, and not by himself. For William, it is a deep wound that tells a story of a deep regret and also of love.
It all starts with William Brown being a great speller and ends with a vicious bite.
At a young age I was what you would call bright. I’d win spelling bee championships a lot. And if I didn’t win (usually because I would get too cocky), it would crush me.
William probably felt crushed when he didn’t win because he cared a lot about what his family expected from him. Though he knows they were supporting his efforts, he sometimes felt the pressure of their expectations.
My family was really on me to do well in school because they saw my potential. My mom had four kids. They were all succeeding in school, but with B’s and C’s. Only one sister and I were bringing in A’s. There wasn’t any difference in her love for any of us, but she would hold up my report card to them and say, “You see William’s A’s? That’s what I want you all to bring in.”
Far from being jealous, everyone in William’s family would cheer him on with statements like: Look at you, William, straight A’s again! A’s in seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade! Come on, William, you’re doing it! Just three more grades to go! The expectations they were putting on me made me worry that I couldn’t live up to them. It was a lot of pressure.
For a kid growing up in a gang-ridden section of Los Angeles, Straight-A William sure seemed to be the one boy who was on the right track to a successful life. But it didn’t turn out that way. Maybe it was that pressure of family expectations, maybe it was his youthful lack of defenses against the seductions of gang life, maybe it was just a teenager’s need for a manly quest.
Whatever the reason, by the time William enter tenth grade, the school books began to sit unopened in the corner of the room. In their place appeared the converse sneakers, the jackets, beanies and handkerchiefs of a gangbanging street kid. And it was also at this time that Kimberly Brown, William’s sister, sunk her teeth into William’s body and would not let go.
. . . this true story to be continued . . .
Jorge Manly Gil
Part I: Where You Live, What You Do
by Larry Greco Harris
It would seem that Caroline Taylor-Hitch might have had such a mantra humming in her head as she put one hand across her eyes, allowed her other hand to hover over an open map of California, hummed a few magic notes, and then trusting Earth’s gravity and Life’s luck, let her finger fall.
Caroline, a recovering teen addict from the San Francisco Bay Area, was taking a first step on a fresh road to a new life. And apparently where you live in this formula was going to start wherever her finger fell.
If you looked at me just a few years ago, you would have seen a drug addicted 15 year old who wasn’t going to school, and instead, was doing all kinds of stupid stuff. Lost I guess. Maybe a better word is aimless. It really didn’t matter, though, because I truly thought I would be dead by 18.
I didn’t go to classes during the first two years of high school. Nobody could make me go. I’d have people drop me off in front of the school every morning, but I wouldn’t actually walk in. In two years, the only credits I had were from the drama classes I took. Those classes were the only things I’d go to school for.
Despite her early drug involvement and her absence from school, Caroline counts herself as a very lucky person to have discovered acting. For her, it has become a fulfillment of the second line in the Happy Life Mantra: It’s What You Do.
I was 10 years old when I jumped onto a stage for the very first time. I fell in love with it. I’ve been involved in theater eve since.
Maybe it was this passion to perform that pushed Caroline to finally enter the doors of the high school and stay. Once there, besides attending regular classes, she deepened her theater credentials by taking on more and more responsibilities.
I started directing plays in high school, and became the drama club president. I learned that theater is what I love to do and that I could never leave it.
So armed with the knowledge of It’s What You Do, and trusting to luck for It’s Where You Live, Caroline Taylor-Hitch opened her eyes that day, looked down at the map and found that her finger had fallen directly atop the city of Santa Maria, California. So with the Central Coast as her destination, Caroline pushed off on a journey away from Who She Loved and Who Loved Her to start, star in and direct a new story about a happier life.
. . . this true story to be continued . . .
Part I: Theatre’s Church
by Larry Greco Harris
Cooper Wise, at 23, has been searching for a feeling for a long time. And this search has led him from the bright lights of the theater stages in Nevada, through the through dim-lit heroin bathrooms of the Pacific Northwest, behind the metal bars of San Luis Obispo County Jail, and recently into a heavily monitored halfway house for ex-offenders.
Most every child spends his or her young life trying on different hats and engaging in different adventures in search of what feels right. Many find their emotional needs met through the fellowship offered at their place of worshipthat is if they are ever introduced to such a place. Well, Cooper Wise was. As a child growing up in Las Vegas, his parents had him baptized into the tight-knit and family-supportive Mormon Church. But the beneficial feelings of that experience did not last long for Cooper.
I was young and impressionable, so at first I got into going. But by the time I was twelve or thirteen I was smoking and drinking and saying screw this church thing.
Though he didn’t know exactly what feeling he was looking for, Cooper was sure it wasn’t going to come from the traditional avenue of a religion, nor from that other typical activity set aside for teenage boys sports. But luckily, through trial and error, he did find an outlet that began to feel a lot better theater.
There is a children’s theatre ensemble in Vegas called The Rainbow Company. It was an alternative to the school sports that weren’t really fulfilling me. I remember the first time being on stage in front of people in eighth grade. Part of me stepped outside of myself. It was a surreal experience to be playing this character who wasn’t me.
I definitely got high off of it. I remember I had a ritual. Before they opened the doors and let the audience in, I would sit alone in the house seats of the theatre. I’d be in costume and make up and ready to go and I would just sit there. It was like a spiritual church for me, just being in that theatre, just being behind the scenes in a space where there was all that focus and excitement. It just felt right.
Once he’d had this experience, Cooper was reluctant to let it go.
I ended up liking it so much that later I went to a performing arts high school where I majored in theater. That meant you studied theater two hours out of every day. They taught us the whole gamut, from doing the sets, to ushering, to lights and sound. It was an outlet for me. We did five shows a year, and I got a lot out of it. But once you graduated, you were done with it.
So at 18, with theatre no longer structuring his time or providing the spiritual energy that made him feel good, he took his high school diploma and set himself a new course, northward, in search of the next thing that might feel right. He moved away from home and enrolled in a college up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. It was there that Cooper Wise got into sociology and philosophy . . . and also Heroin.
Part II: You Can’t Go Home Again
For Cooper Wise, something just felt right about attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He had toured the Pacific Northwest during his junior and senior years in high school and had liked the area. Much different from Las Vegas.
Also, the school had a non-conventional and progressive structure much like his high school. There he decided to leave theater behind to take up sociology and philosophy. Though he enjoyed the ideas presented in these disciplines, they clearly did not trigger for him the emotional or spiritual feelings that he seemed to need.
Another reason Olympia, Washington, might have felt right to Cooper is because of the special advantages it offered to marijuana users.
Being a heavy pot head, says Cooper, Washington was appealing to me living away from my family, being out in the woods, smoking pot. Along with the progressiveness of the school came a lot of drugs and partying. Evergreen College is a good school, but the pot’s cheap and the acid’s flowing.
Cooper dates his earliest drug use back to a shoulder surgery he had when he was a junior in high school.
The doctor prescribed pain killers. I think that kind of started it. Soon I was taking them when I really didn’t need to be. I just liked the way they made me feel. Then it progressed. My mom was on pain management, so I would sneak into her room to try out any of her pills that were labeled may cause drowsiness.
When Cooper lived at home and stayed involved in high school theatre, he must have been getting just enough of what he needed to avoid severe drug involvement. But once he moved away, nothing seemed to feel as right as the drugs he began to take.
It was just a miserable time. I was eighteen, a freshman in college, living away from my parents. I was supposed to be out on my own, experiencing the world, and instead I was in my room every night calling my girlfriend back in Las Vegas.
I found that drugs and alcohol worked for the time being to take away the pain and the awkwardness of being in a new place and meeting new people. Then something just clicked, and I said to myself, OK, I’ll just stay high like this all the time, and that’ll work. That’s when I started to progress into sticking needles into my arm. And with heroin, it got bad really fast.
Three quarters of the way through his freshman year at Evergreen College, Cooper dropped out.
I called my parents and said I have a drug problem. I need help. Then I went back to Vegas and got into an outpatient residential treatment program. I thought to myself, If I can just get off Heroin, then my life will be better.
Maybe Cooper thought that going back to his old life would make him feel good enough to kick this use of narcotics that was bringing him down so quickly. Maybe he thought that the feeling of being around his parents, the feeling of being back with his girlfriend, the feelings he could recapture by limiting himself to alcohol and pot would pull him back from this ominous cliff of heroin use.
But as the saying goes, You can’t go home again. And it was true for Cooper, too. Despite returning to his hearth and his home, things were about to get much worse.
. . . this true story to be continued . . .
Part I: Born Too Free
by Larry Greco Harris
Tina Freeborn grew up trapped in a net of total freedom an oxymoron maybe, but the sad truth. Growing up, says Tina, my little sister and I were on our own. There was no food in the fridge. And around the beginning of the month when food stamp time would come, there might be some little ice creams and hamburger meat around, but what I didn’t know at the time was that the food stamp money would get traded for drugs.
We were hungry, we didn’t have a change of clothes, and the clothes we did have were always dirty. Let me put it this way, our mom was either gone or locked behind some door: the bedroom, the bathroom. But she would open it easily for men, many men, boyfriends, uncles, you know what I mean? Tina winks sarcastically as she describes this. So, by default, Tina became parent to both herself and her younger sister. One day Rose, who was four years younger than me, had to go to school to get her report card. My mom was supposed to come get it, but of course she wouldn’t. So I went to the school and asked for it. I was so offended that they wouldn’t give it to me, yet they would give it to my mom. I told them, I am the caretaker, the one who handles these affairs in our business. I was only in fourth grade, but I was offended by these adults because I truly thought I was the adult here.
Rose was sent to the playground and Tina was taken to the principal’s office to sit and wait, but when the staff turned away, Tina burst out of the office, ran through the playground, grabbed her sister and kept running. I think I snatched the report card, too. Screw these people! I thought. It is not surprising that Tina, at nine, might have thought she was already an adult. Her mother did not treat her as a daughter, rather as an acquaintance to have fun with and often confide in. Tina was too young and too isolated from what might be called a normal childhood to even notice any of the more traditional families that lived outside of the dysfunctional net of her own.
I did have a feeling that maybe I should have some clean clothes. I saw the kids at school. They wore different clothes every day. I thought, How come I don’t have different clothes; how come I wear the same dirty clothes every day? When asked if there was anyone she could have turned to for help for such concerns, Tina said: I wouldn’t have even thought to ask anyone. Besides, my mom would warn us not to tell anything to anybody because the police would take us away. She said that CPS would come get us because CPS’s whole goal in life was to tear our family apart. So we didn’t tell anybody anything.
For three more years, Tina Freeborn, born far too free of guidance, trapped in a net of fear and ignorance, where drugs turn children into parents and parents into children, remained until, at 12 years old, the one truly good adult in my life took me into his home, a normal home.
Part I: Pit Bull on the Playground
by Larry Greco Harris
If you Google the words Bull Chaney (with the quotation marks) into your web browser, you will come up with two results right away: One result is Bull Chaney the person and subject of this story. The other is a pit bull named Chaney.
As different as these two search results may seem at first, to see Bull Chaney walk toward you for the very first time might make you wonder if maybe those two Google results aren’t somehow related.
At 6’3, weighing 263 pounds, sporting a broad mustache and sun glasses above a powerful build, Fredrick Bull Chaney’s entrance into a room turns heads much like the arrival of a pit bull through the open gate of a playground turns heads.
Now most people know that not every pit bull is dangerous but then again some are. It’s this vague history and the not-knowing that turns those heads and starts the concern.
Likewise, if you combine Bull Chaney’s initial appearance with his history of having spent 17 years in prison, including a stay in San Quentin, you might find yourself wondering, Who is this guy, what does he want, and should I be afraid of him?
Well, here is the short answer in one breath: Once he was a boy, then he was a drug dealer, often he was a prisoner, along the way he became an addict who played the sad role of an absent father who later, as an ex-con, faced his demons and his fears to transform himself into a good husband, an attentive father and an excellent influence on an ever-arriving stream of ex-convicts into a community that is much better off for having welcomed and employed him.
Yes, Bull Chaney is the pit bull for whom you open the playground gate.
. . . this true story to be continued . . .