On the ferry to Alcatraz a few weekends ago, Berkeley playwright Dan McMullan reflected on having his play Blythe performed on “the Rock.”
“Well, it is a prison,” McMullan said. “I couldn’t think of a more fitting place to do the play.”
Blythe has come full-circle, and on a long arc: McMullan wrote it while behind bars 25 years ago, but the play only came to life on stage for the first time this fall. Its only Bay Area performance was in the New Industries Building on Alcatraz on Nov. 5, and, like the playwright, the actors were all formerly incarcerated.
McMullan was homeless for several years in Berkeley, and he now sits on the Berkeley Human Welfare and Community Action Commission. He wrote Blythe as part of a statewide playwriting contest run by the Arts-in-Corrections program, while he was an inmate at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in 1991.
McMullan’s play won first place of 40 entries. In 1992, the Arts-in-Corrections program selected it for a staged reading in Hollywood involving Ed Asner, who was then head of the Screen Actors Guild. At the last minute, the reading was cancelled after the warden of Chuckawalla Valley prison insisted that the play be removed from the program.
“Part of it was they wouldn’t let us perform it inside the prison; they thought it would be embarrassing for the officers,” director Leah Joki said in a talkback session after the play. “But they signed off for it to go out to Los Angeles, and the warden kind of forgot that he had signed this off months ago, and apparently he was at another meeting with these other wardens saying, ‘I can’t believe that they’re doing a play about your prison with these big-name actors.’… I think he was embarrassed, and he pulled it.”
Chuckawalla Valley State Prison is located just outside the tiny desert town of Blythe, near the Arizona border. The play takes place in (fictional) Andy’s Diner in Blythe in the early 1990s. Two residents and the waitress gripe — briefly — about the unfulfilled promise that the prison would bring more people and more growth to the town. When a prisoner goes on the lam, two corrections officers from the nearby prison drop in for a few minutes each and are both clearly attracted to the waitress.
On Alcatraz, the audience of about 80 people enjoyed the humor and the acting.
“There’s something really beautiful about this just being so raw,” said one man in the audience, during the talkback. “The entertainment industry in many ways is destroyed by commercialism, and bringing this all back together — you guys just really poured your passion into it, and there’s something beautiful about that, so thank you.”
“The people that are doing this play have added so many little bits to the play and such genius stuff, and I just go, ‘Wow, that is so great!’,” said McMullan. “They’ve really picked up what I was thinking about and run with it, and I’m really proud of this entire crew.”
McMullan explained how he came up with the idea for his play.
“When I was a kid I’d actually gone to Blythe a lot, camping and stuff at the river,” he said. “I was reading the newspapers and I saw something that said, ‘Happiness is seeing Blythe in your rearview mirror,’ … and I thought, ‘You know, if I was somebody in Blythe and I was reading the newspaper, how would I feel about that? And where would I be and what would I be doing?’”
As an inmate, McMullan worked as a clerk for Joki, who taught with Arts-in-Corrections at Chuckawalla Valley in the early 1990s. The Arts-in-Corrections program ran in California prisons from 1979 to 2004. It was restarted two years ago, and Joki now serves as a mentor to current artists and teachers in the program.
After being paroled, McMullan eventually moved to Berkeley and was homeless here until 1999. Today, as well as working on a city commission, McMullan is a regular contributor to, and editorial board member of, the Street Spirit newspaper, and he’s finishing his full-length play, A Man Down in the Warehouse.
Reflecting on what his experience with creative arts while in prison did for him, he said: “[In prison] it was a lot of violence and a lot of craziness, a lot of racism, a lot of stuff that I wasn’t used to being around, and so to be able to go into a room and just relax, play music, work on plays…. It was really fun. I had a great time; I really enjoyed doing it. The people I met there I remember to this day. I got a lot out of it and it seems like a perfect lesson to me, later in life working with people, because I can definitely relate to people on just about every level.”
Blythe was produced by the Poetic Justice Project, a nonprofit theater company founded by Deborah Tobola. The project grew out of her experience with Arts-in-Corrections. Tobola had taught creative writing and done theater with inmates of California prisons.
“And it was so powerful, I wanted to send my paroling inmates to the program on the other side, so they could keep going,” Tobola said.
But there was no such program for parolees, so Tobola retired in late 2008, “took the weekend off, and started PJP [Poetic Justice Project],” she said. “This is our fifteenth production. We’ve had 94 actors; three have gone back to prison.”
“From my point of view, seeing almost 100 actors come through, and becoming very close with many of them, I think one of the most powerful things PJP does is reconnect people to their communities,” Tobola said. “They often come out of jail or prison stigmatized. They tend to isolate themselves, and they feel like they’re not part of us, and so my theory is if you — you can give people cars, jobs, housing, whatever, but if they feel they don’t belong out here with us, they’re going to go back. So I think the most powerful thing PJP does is create that connection.”
This was the fifth time Poetic Justice Project had presented a show on Alcatraz. Blythe was also performed at venues up and down the Central Coast. It closed Nov. 13 in Santa Barbara. Tobola said they would work on publishing the play so that it can be performed again.