Playwrights Project tells stories in prisoners’ words

By Eva Trieger

Eva Trieger

Eva Trieger

SAN DIEGO — The Playwrights Project has once again proved that it does not shy away from weighty or unpopular topics.  “I’M GOOD: Incarcerated Men Getting  Over Obstacles Daily,” is the collaborative effort of the playwrights of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility.  Partnering with the SDSU School of Theater, Television and Film, William James Association, and SDSU’s Criminal Justice Program, the 90-minute workshop production is part of the Playwrights Project Out of the Yard program.  Sponsors of this program include California Arts Council, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and it is made possible through the support of the James Irvine Foundation, as well as an anonymous foundation.

The inmates’ stories were portrayed by student actors and every performance was sold out.  The 175 seat Experimental Theater is located in the heart of the San Diego State University campus.  Following each performance the audience was invited to a talk back.  The Spartan set held only a few chairs in a semi-circle and two smaller hassocks that the crew cleverly manipulated to serve as a car, a bunk, or table as needed.

The incarcerated men reveal their individual stories as they respond to prompts given by the “I’M GOOD” group leader.  The purpose of this therapeutic group is to get the men to see how they can become constructive conduits to their own rehabilitation.  The group facilitator, Moonie (Steele Severson), encourages the men to share their experiences and emotions in a safe and supportive atmosphere.  He is firm and constructive, and they are largely responsive and open.  Andre (Carter Piggee) and Mathew (Edgar Aguilar) are cellmates who attend group regularly and realize the benefit of learning to deliberate before acting.  Newcomer, Carl (San Diego Jewish World’s own Eric George Tauber) struggles with the disrespect and invasive treatment of life as a prisoner.  A fourth, and somewhat reluctant member, Brent (Ryan Stubo) rounds out the counseling group.

Through these meetings the audience learns what crime brought each of the men to jail.  Substance abuse is a common underlying thread, poverty or monetary issues are also prevalent.  Domestic violence and sexual abuse figure prominently in the lives of many of the incarcerated men.  All of the men speak of a sense of helplessness and hopelessness at their predicament.  “I’ve been down so long, I keep sinking lower.” Carl’s reaction to losing his sons’ respect, “I want to stop feeling like I’m not enough” was echoed by others throughout the work.  Each of the men expressed feeling abandoned by family, spouses, or a sense of being stuck.

Throughout the play the floor guards, paramedics and officers are often callous, intimidating and unnecessarily rude.  During Recreation Time, a prison guard came around to audience members and wordlessly demanded that we sit up, or uncross our legs.  It felt that they were establishing dominance over us.

Moonie described the progression of steps in recovery.  He tells the group of remorse, responsibility and acceptance.  This began a visit to the San Diego Courthouse where Matthew is having his hearing and sentencing.  For the murder of his mother’s abusive boyfriend he is sentenced to 25 years to life.  There are additional charges that lengthen this punishment.  Brent, as a narrator asks the question, “What is a decade of man’s life worth?”

One clear message that comes through the words of the playwrights is that groups, such as “I’M GOOD” really do help them in finding a way back to a sense of humanity.  The possibility of recovering self-esteem or self-love exists, even for a man who entered the system in juvenile hall.  In Matthew’s words, “I feel like a person again.”

This play gives yet another dimension to the festival of freedom and the sense of liberation we are celebrating as Passover draws to a close.  Whether the barriers to freedom are made of cinderblock and iron or of tyranny, the first step to freeing ourselves is recognizing what holds us back and rededicating ourselves to fully appreciating our emancipation.  The Playwrights Project is a beautiful venue to loosening the shackles of bondage.

Trieger is a freelance writer specializing in coverage of the arts.  She may be contacted via [email protected]  Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the United States.)

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