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Poetic Justice for a Berkeley playwright


It’s rare for a play to make its Bay Area premiere on Alcatraz, but then, this is no ordinary play — and the Poetic Justice Project is no ordinary theater company.

The actors have a special relationship to prison: they’ve all spent time behind bars. Now they’re performing for audiences in venues between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This November, the Poetic Justice Project brought an original play, written by a formerly incarcerated Berkeley resident, to the one-time federal prison.

On the ferry to Alcatraz, playwright Dan McMullan says, “I couldn’t think of a more fitting place to do the play.”

That’s because he wrote it while doing time in Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, near the small, Southern California desert town of Blythe.

Now, twenty-five years later, McMullan watches his play, titled Blythe, come to life in a former prison. The scene opens in a fictional diner in the town of Blythe. Over coffee, two characters, Bob and Jim, talk about how the nearby prison has not lived up to the promises of its promoters.

“‘Happiness is seeing Blythe in the rearview mirror?’ Can you believe that, Jim? When them boys from Sacramento came down here, all they could talk about was how much money it’s going to bring into this town,” Bob says.

Bob discovers that someone has stolen his tow truck from the parking lot, and Jim tries to console him.

“They say they’ve got a hundred men out there; they’ll find him,” Jim says. “You’ll have that truck back in no time.”


“Where’s your head at, Jim?” Bob retorts. “Can’t you see what we’re dealing with here? “This man’s a master criminal!”

Actor Herbert Wells plays Jim. He says he went in and out of prison for sixteen years. He served his last sentence at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, where he was doing five years for the possession of marijuana. That’s where he found theater. After the Blythe performance at Alcatraz, Wells tells the audience that after his first role, he was hooked.

“It seemed like we was doing more plays than anything. I took a liking to them,” Wells says. “We also had creative writing groups, so we were writing plays and stuff like that.”

Like Wells, playwright McMullan also took part in what’s called Arts in Corrections while serving time. In fact, that’s why he wrote the play Blythe in the first place, as an entry in a statewide prison play-writing contest. His play won, but itwas never performed, at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, or anywhere else, until this fall.

McMullan describes what theater meant for him back at Chuckawalla.

“It’s an amazing room in a prison — when you’re in a horrible prison where there’s all kinds of craziness going on,” he says. “To be able to go into a room and just relax, and play music, work on music, work on plays -- it was really fun.”

Also at this performance is Deborah Tobola, the founding Artistic Director of the Poetic Justice Project. Tobola taught creative writing and theater at the California Men’s Colony, when Herbert Wells was there, and she wanted that to continue.

“I wanted to send my paroling inmates to the program on the other side so they could keep going, but there wasn’t one,” Tobola says.

So, in 2009, she started the Poetic Justice Project.

“It amazes me every day. I love doing this.”

Parolees are the actors, sound techs, and stage managers. Tobola says theater provides a respite from the isolation former inmates often feel.

“We have audiences who come to see us in various towns wherever we perform,” says Tobola. “They follow our actors’ progress. They love, love, love our actors, so that’s why it works.”

Something about the Poetic Justice Project really does make a difference. Tobola says that since its start, the program has involved nearly 100 formerly incarcerated actors. Onlythree of them have gone back to prison.

MarciJean Fambrini, who played the waitress, says she was locked up for intoxication and sentenced to a recovery home years ago; now she’s been sober for five years. She says that participating in theater has been a huge part of her recovery.  

“A lot of the men and women that come out of prison, part of being institutionalized is that they feel that they will always be treated like a child,” says Fambrini.

When acting in a play, though, she says former inmates have responsibilities such as learning lines, showing up to practice and performances.

“Going directly from prison into a play where they become somebody — they can become a-n-y-b-o-d-y,” says Fambrini. “They begin to feel the importance of their life, the importance of their words, and it gives them accountability, and it’s just positive.”

Herbert Wells says that pretending to be other people on stage put him in better touch with his own life.

“Actually, you look at life as you’re playing a character, you know, but you’re actually writing the story,” says Wells, “so you’re going to need to either change the way you writing it and become something else, or you’re going to keep on letting it write itself. It’s not going to stop; it’s definitely going to be written. It’s just, are you going to be in control of the writing, or are you going to let somebody else control the writing?”

He says theater -- in prison, and now with the Poetic Justice Project -- gave him a new outlook.

“Now I’m writing a book, [and] starting to write a play — I just love to act in plays — so it showed me that I have other talents other than the things that I was doing before,” Wells says.

Wells’ love for acting pushes him to drive nearly five hours one way from his home in San Bernardino to Santa Maria for rehearsals.

The Poetic Justice Project receives support from private donors and foundations. There may soon be greater state funding to make this kind of activity more widely available. The state legislature set aside 800,000 dollars for arts re-entry programs this year.

Actor Herbert Wells, like his stage character Jim, is optimistic and sees a bright future for the Poetic Justice Project.

“The more interviews we do,” he says, “the more people really get to see the plays, I believe it’s going to grow, because it’s really something really needed.”

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