Behind miles of razor wire and an electric fence, 23 prisoners housed in California State Prison – Los Angeles County (Lancaster) performed an original theater piece titled “More than a Number.”
For 10 weeks, the men gathered in the same place, at the same time, in preparation for their performances for the Theatre Workers Project led by Susie Tanner.
“I am touched by the humanity and willingness of the men and women to share”
Like clockwork, Tanner and her performance troupe traversed the Progressive Programming Facility (Yard A) waving and smiling in the direction of the cluster- ing men. It was the evening of their final rehearsal before their show and for most of the men; it would be their first time performing in front of an audience.
“Our performance speaks our truth in a way that words alone could not express,” said Larry Torres, one of the participants, who is serving 70 years to life. “I want to share this experience with others— I want people to see how prisoners can change.”
The mood was light- hearted, yet they understood the weight of the rare opportunity to share their truths and demonstrate their growth and rehabilitation.
Tanner had reminded the men that they have value, and that there is strength in vulnerability.
“This theater (program) touched my life, heart and soul,” said Athan Phillips, who is serving life with- out parole. “The volunteers made me feel like a human being and given me hope.
“I want people to take away from our performance [that] on the other side of these walls are human beings; we are all under the same sun, and we are capable of change,” Phillips added.
Many of the men have been incarcerated for most of their adult lives and are beginning to learn healthier ways to express their emotions while developing positive solutions to life’s challenges before returning to their communities.
The prison theater program is a safe space where the men can retell their experiences creatively through movement, writing and performance.
Inside the main room, the talented choreographer Alexa Kershner, renowned poet Ruben Guevara and famous teaching artist Whitney Wakimoto mingled with a group of the men while others talked quietly near center stage, discussing their scene.
The men were thrilled to learn their families would be able to attend the show and that the performance would be filmed by teaching artist Marlene McCurtis and camera person Megan Mitchell.
“The first prison I performed in was in Massachusetts,” said Tanner. “I was a teaching artist then. I’ve taught and performed all over, but it is something special about working in prison.
“I am touched by the humanity and willingness of the men and women to share,” she added.
Tanner, standing behind an oil-stained wooden podium just inside the chapel’s hallway, was dressed in black pants, black blouse with a black sequined scarf and bright red tennis shoes.
There was a low buzz of excitement filling the room as everyone prepared to begin. The men formed individual groups with the volunteers and began rehearsing their scenes. The scenes were emotional and traumatic, some were funny, yet they all addressed forgiveness and second chances.
“When artists share their artistry it is a high point in my life, it is a reminder why I do
this work,” said Tanner. “They have a hunger for our work that is so satisfying.”
The men clustered together for the epilogue. Their bodies swayed rhythmically side to side, then angling slightly back, their hands reached upward toward the evening sun. Slowly one of the men stepped forward directly in front of the audience. “My name is Dara Yin, I am more than a number. I am a human being.”
Each man began to step for- ward one at a time, saying their names, repeating the mantra “My name is: Anthony Graham, Jesse Luna, Tyson Atlas, Louie Brash, James Heard and Jerimicahael Cooley….”
“An artist takes something they really believe strongly in and wants the rest of the world to know,” concluded Tanner. “These men are rehabilitated, and I’ve been rehabilitated too.”
By Allen Burnett Contributing Writer