It was the first time I had ever been to Alcatraz and I was so excited, especially because this was to be no ordinary tourist trip by ferry across the choppy waters to the infamous “Rock.”
I was traveling with a group of people who had purchased tickets from the William James Association to attend a special performance of the play “In the Kitchen With A Knife.” The play is one of many different theatrical and literary creative writing projects put on by The Poetic Justice Project. According to its mission statement, “Poetic Justice Project advances social justice by engaging formerly incarcerated youth and adults in arts education, mentoring and the creation of original theater examining crime, punishment and redemption.”
“In the Kitchen With A Knife” is an interactive murder-mystery and the action takes place in a prison setting. What better place to perform it than the infamous Alcatraz itself?
Playwrights Deborah Tobola and Dylan O’Harra, a mother-and-son team, wrote the play. The director was Leslie Carson, a retired drama teacher who volunteers to teach theater at a women’s prison and a girls’ juvenile facility.
“In the Kitchen With A Knife” has a cast of 13. Sound designer Tim Seawall created sound effects that made the experience of being inside a prison incredibly realistic. Live acoustic music (guitar and makeshift percussion on the outside of a box), as well as singing by vocalists MarciJean Fambrini and Maux Samuel, enhanced the play and drew a positive response from the audience.
The play began with four inmates filing on stage. All of them work in the prison kitchen. An inmate called Telly threatens to give the other three “cause for grief” if they do not comply with his demands.
In the next scene, the body of Telly is found murdered and stuffed in a kitchen laundry cart. The sirens blow and an immediate lockdown is enforced. Capt. Rojas (Guillermo Willie) and Lt. Vincent (David Louk) call out all three inmates individually for interrogation.
While this is going on, the warden (Dion Schwulst), apparently more concerned about bad press than anything else, pressures Capt. Rojas to determine which of the three accused inmates committed the crime. To complicate the issue, the DNA of all three inmates is on the knife that allegedly killed Telly.
After all three inmates are interrogated, they return to their individual cells. The audience then hears their respective soliloquies that give insight into their personal backgrounds, thoughts, beliefs, hopes, dreams and possible motivation(s) for killing Telly.
In a clever dramatic device, each inmate encounters his respective “conscience” (in this case a character named “Dodger,” performed by actor Caroline Taylor-Hitch, garbed in sweats and a dark hoodie.)
The scene then moves back to the prison kitchen where the accused inmates, Conrad Fielding (Roger Brown), Alejandro Alcantra (Jorge Manly Gil) and Hubert “Huey” Strickland (Leonard Flippen IV), engage in conversation. Alejandro is busy peeling potatoes and using a chef’s knife as he prepares a meal. “Huey,” a former thief, practices his gambling dice throws. Conrad is an older inmate, a veteran who suffers from angst and emotional guilt about having abandoned soldiers under his direct supervision. He rationalizes his past experiences and actions in order to hold it all together.
Near the end of the play, a brief intermission allows the audience to cast a ballot indicating which inmate they believe killed Telly. Depending on how the audience votes, there are three possible endings to the play.
At the conclusion of the play, during curtain call, came the surprising announcement that every single one of the actors had previously been incarcerated — whether for a day, a month, a year, or even decades.
Then the audience was asked several questions:
- What is the most important thing you learned from the actors and their performance?
I do not know what others wrote, but for me, I learned, or realized all over, that some very gifted, talented, creative, artistic and intelligent people are incarcerated in prisons throughout the U.S. Also, however we may interpret circumstantial evidence, things are not always what they seem.
- In what way has your attitude about prison and/or prisoners changed, if at all, based on this performance?
Again, for me, this is a question that pretty much preaches to the choir. My attitudes and beliefs have not changed, but have only been confirmed.
- Would you recommend this play to family or friends?
My response: a resounding “YES!”