Drama Behind Bars

Can an actor and playwright bring discipline and racial harmony to inmates of California's toughest prisons? Zoot helps prisoners in his drama program transform into "Urban Legends"

I had just finished my first show at San Quentin on the Level 4 -maximum security yard, when it still had one. I was outside smoking a cigarette with some of the guys. He was in the back of the crowd, at least a head taller than everyone else, with the face of a psychopathic killer who had just found his next victim–me.

He was 6'5", maybe 290 pounds. He came at me until he was in my face. This man had no concept of personal space. It was as if all space belonged to him, and the space I was in, he was just letting me borrow for a while.

His nose was about two inches from mine. Two large veins were pulsing in his neck and forehead. I didn't back away but forced myself to meet him in the eye. “You know I caught you!” He paused. “Outta the corner of my eye, see, and I could tell you was just like me. ...” Now we were eyeball to eyeball. “A bull shitter! You know it's hard to talk about it in front of the fellas, but. ...”

He broke off, looked both ways, and put his arm around my neck as if he was going to choke me. “You touched me,” he said. I asked him his name. “My name is King Super-Fine Bodine The Marvelous One. ...” He went on like it was a perfectly normal name. Everyone just called him “King.”

I worked with guys there for two days. King was always the first to a workshop and the last to leave. The regular teacher said that he never came to anything before. He was good at everything in theater. His personality was as big and strong as his physical appearance. He was charismatic and naturally talented. He had a tendency though, to do every improvised scene about drugs.

After my last workshop, I asked him, “So, you think you can stay out?”

For the first time since I'd known him, this giant, powerful man looked like a frightened little kid all of a sudden. “Yeah, I can get out there and make something out of my life,” he said. “You know, I get out next month. I know I could do it. But –” He broke off and leaned into me with resignation in his voice, looking like an athlete who was cut from the team. “I love that drug!” That's when I realized the power of crack cocaine. As big and strong as King was, he was a slave to that tiny, white rock.

Reducing recidivism

People think of prisoners as rapists, murderers, child molesters, and armed robbers. But according to the California Department of Corrections 1997 statistical analysis, murderers are less than 1 percent of the prison population. Even with assaults, sex offenses, and robbery, violent criminals account for 40 percent of the prison population, which in California is at an all-time high.

The other near 60 percent are in for nonviolent crimes usually involving drugs. In 1982, there were 12 prisons near capacity. Since the “War On Drugs,” changes in sentencing laws, and other factors, there are now 33 overcrowded prisons. Prison officials estimate an 8 percent annual increase. 155,795 people are in the California State Penal System as of this writing (December 14, 1997).

My inmate clerk, a lifer who works for me, pointed out the following: since less than one percent are in prison for first-degree murder, the great majority of inmates will be released at some point. Many will leave this week, this month, or this year. Do we want them to come back to our neighborhoods unskilled, uneducated, and better criminals with untreated addictions?

California, with one of the largest prison systems in the world, has been forward-thinking in this respect. It has pilot drug treatment programs that have shown powerful success rates and are being expanded. It has educational, vocational, and religious programs that have helped reduce recidivism and incidents of violence within prison gates.

Among these programs is the Arts in Corrections program, which hired me in 1990 as an artist for that first show at San Quentin. Arts in Corrections began as a pilot in the mid-eighties. In the late 1980s, an independent study commissioned by the Department of Corrections, known today as the Brewster Report, found that the program helps to reduce tensions within the prison and recidivism of inmate-students by as much as half. It has since spread to every prison in the state. The entire program for all state prisons takes less than .01 percent of the Department's budget, supplemented by California Arts Council Artist in Residency grants.


Riding the Gray Goose

After they are convicted, inmates come to prison on the bus from the county jail. The inmates call the bus “The Gray Goose,” because at one time these buses were all gray and always migrating from one prison to another. They are green now, but they migrate more than ever. My “Gray Goose” to prison was different from that of the inmates and most staff, too.

I grew up in inner-city neighborhoods. I was a break dancer in the late seventies while I was in high school. I started performing full-time at 19, after I understudied a mime in college. During the next 12 years, I toured my mime/dance/theater shows, as well as acted and danced on television and film. But it became obvious to me that the most fun and rewarding experiences were in community work. I received a series of grants in South Central, East L.A., and Skid Row schools to teach cultural tolerance through theater. This led to work in juvenile halls and eventually prisons.

From 1990-1994, I toured California prisons with my one-man show. I had done a little such work on the East Coast, but now I was in prisons with famous names and reputations–Folsom, Soledad, and San Quentin. In 1994, I got off the “Gray Goose” and went to work full-time running the Arts In Corrections program at Wasco State Prison near Bakersfield. It took the officers a few days to get used to a new employee with only one name (Zoot was a stage name that I had legally adopted for business purposes).


Urban legends

Since I am a theater artist, my program involved putting together a production. My class and I felt there were few, if any, true portrayals in the media of inmates and prison. I decided we would write a play from scratch as a group.

The participants often had to act foolish in front of each other during the theater improvisation games I used to start the class. The hardest thing for an inmate to do is to drop the “I'm a hard ass” mask, but the class bonded them. Inmates who wouldn't have talked to one another a week before because of race or gang affiliations were now like secret blood-brothers. It's taboo for races and certain gangs to mix on the yard, but when they entered the classroom door, we created something rare in prison – a safety zone.

After the class was established and comfortable, we started telling stories. I gave them the theme “Urban Legends” as a guide, giving examples of urban legends that I knew. I wanted to get stories from them that revealed them as humans rather than inmates. Then we would see how those stories related to their present lives. The stories evolved from oral telling, with everyone sitting in a circle. Someone would start with a tale on the theme, and from there the floodgates would open, washing away the mistrust. The inmates learned that they all had interesting stories to tell.

It didn't take much prompting to get them to write their work down. Then we edited the stories as a class into monologues. One monologue, Rat, was a very simple story about a boy's pet rat as a metaphor for institutionalization (see sidebar). It ended up a highlight of the show. When the students saw how something so simple could be so effective, the “mystique” of writing was broken.


The drama unfolds

By now, the class was a tight group and very supportive. The play had become important to them. It was their story, their play. It had been my experience in schools that students would fight over roles and put themselves before the work. But in prison, these men gave up roles to others for the good of the cause. They missed NBA playoff games to make rehearsals, which is a big deal in prison where there is so little to look forward to. They were disciplined and pushed each other. If one inmate was not memorizing his lines on time, the others put incredible amounts of pressure on him to catch up. They were a team and approached it as a sport. They recruited.

Several of the students who were well-connected in the prison gangs got some of the “Shot Callers” involved when the script was complete. Shot Callers are the gang leaders; once they got involved, recruitment was easy. We would sit in the group and say, “Oh, we need a redheaded, light-skinned, black 20 year-old to play Red Dog,” and the next class there would be a young, redheaded, light-skinned black man at my door. I could only imagine the recruitment tactics used by some of the Shot Callers, but those who showed up stayed and got into it. The program became a kind of club. Soon the whole yard was talking about the play.

It is typical on a maximum-security yard to have “lock downs” periodically. A lock down happens after a fight between gangs or races, or some major trouble that is potentially even more dangerous. The inmates are locked in their cells with no yard privileges for a period of days or weeks until the trouble cools or is solved by investigating correctional officers. There is usually some sort of lock down once a month, more in the summer when it is hot and tempers flare.

I was very proud that from February, when we started auditions, until the end of July, when we did our final performance, there were no lock downs. I remember hearing the Shot Callers involved in the production telling their homies, “If you have a beef with someone, I don't care who it is, keep it in the dorms; don't bring it to the yard. I don't want to miss any rehearsals for lock downs. You hear me, Dogg?”


Subject to interpretation

We ended up with six monologues that became the play. There was no central plot, but rather character studies and story-telling. No one performed the monologue they themselves had written. Everyone was interpreting someone else's material. The authors and actors could feel themselves in someone else's shoes, including different races. Those rehearsals led to many discussions on the differences and similarities of cultures. When editing Rat and The Pool (both written by Chicanos and performed by a white performer and black performer respectively) much talk went into what was changed or left in and why. Everyone was surprised at how little had to be changed to accommodate the racial shift in performers. On the monologues that were race-specific, they saw the importance of the story being told from that particular racial viewpoint.

For backdrops, we projected slides from paintings from the visual arts classes. Many of the monologues became musical, so the inmate music classes put the first Wasco State Prison Band together. The band wrote and performed the music under the direction of a talented local musician named Rod Borges. This band later did a Holiday Concert for visiting families. Guest artists came and critiqued our work: well-known storytellers Milbre Burch, Jude Narita, and Leslie Perry, and renowned character actor and theater coach Louis Arquette.

We performed the play four times for inmate audiences, once for the local press, and once for the community at a banquet I organized. The stories became part of a book project for adult literacy.


“I need a fix!”

One inmate-actor told a reporter, “The feeling I get on stage is the same adrenaline rush I used to get loading the gun in my car behind the 7-11. I'm going to continue with theater when I get out. It's a lot safer, more fun, and no one gets hurt–except maybe your ego.”

Another inmate-actor, who was in for petty crimes related to his heroin addiction, ran into my office two days after the last performance. “When are we going to do another play?” he asked. “I need a fix! What a rush that was! That was a better high than any drug I've ever done. If I could just do a play every month, I bet I could stay clean.”

Of course, he probably won't do a play every month. He may not stay clean. Many of those men may be back on the Gray Goose again. But they got a taste of something–discipline, a desire for knowledge (many enrolled in education classes as a result of the play), what it's like to relate to people of other races in a positive way. They felt what it's like to be in a safe environment for a few hours a week in the midst of a very frantic, stressful, and sometimes violent place.

They saw that they were able to do something positive. So many children are told at a young age that they are evil, stupid, and will never amount to anything. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe many of these men did evil because they believed they were evil. Society believed they were evil. Art, like religion, can instill a sense of social consciousness, without the confines of a religious creed that many inmates resist. The artist becomes a healer–of himself–through the act of creating something good for society.

Make up your own mind about the politics of the criminal justice system, laws, and punishment. But while you are debating this, the Gray Goose is migrating at this minute. It is bringing new travelers in, and taking others back to your blocks, stores, churches, and sometimes households. Do you want the inmate who wrote stories, played music, acted, painted, got a GED, and learned a trade behind you at the 7-11, or the inmate who waited three years on the yard planning his next scheme?


Zoot is head of the interdisciplinary Arts in Corrections programs at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California, where he works with medium security felons and drug treatment inmates. He also still performs his stage work and is currently writing a new play about prison.

My dad bought Mouse the works. Nice new cage complete with Mouse's version of Nordic-Trac, a rotating piece of screen on which he could exercise to his little heart's content, a luxury water bottle, the plushest sawdust, and the tastiest mouse munchies available. (I know, because I tasted them.) I set Mouse up on the counter in a corner of the garage.

At first, Mouse was pretty stressed out in his new environment. He just couldn't get used to his nice, new cage. I would watch as he would circle and pace, climb the sides, and even hang from the bars across the top. When he got especially frustrated, he would cower in the furthest corner of his cage till anxiety again forced him to seek escape. After a while, he resigned himself to his situation. Then, Mouse became Rat.

I grew to love Rat, and I think he loved me. I could tell, because as soon as Rat saw me step into the garage, he would run over to the side of his cage closest to where I was and start climbing on the bars with anticipation. I'd come over, open his cage door, and the first thing he'd do was jump out, run up the length of my arm, perch himself on my shoulder, and lick the side of my face with his tiny, velvety tongue.

Rat liked exploring the countertop outside his cage, but for some reason, he never strayed too far from either his cage or me. I always thought that was kind of odd. I mean, I figured if I was locked in a cage like him, the first chance I had, I'd get as far away from it as I could. But not Rat. He stayed close, real close. Then I noticed something else that was sort of disturbing. Every time Rat felt threatened in some way, like when something dropped on the counter, he wouldn't even run to me. He'd bolt like crazy right back into his cell. I just couldn't understand it. Made no sense to me. But then at the time, I was only eight. Thirty-one years of life have passed me by since then.

Now I understand Rat.

I don't think I'll put Liz in the cup. I'll just let her go. She'll hang around, right, Liz? Right, celly?


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