The Poetic Justice Project (PJP) is back with another arresting drama: In the Kitchen with a Knife plays at the SLO Grange Hall from Friday, Nov. 1 to Sunday, Nov. 3. (Tickets cost $10 to $20; see poeticjusticeproject.org for full details.)
The play is an interactive murder mystery that puts audiences in prison and asks them to decide which of three men killed Telly, an inmate who worked in the kitchen. There are three possible endings, depending on how each audience votes. Written by Deborah Tobola and Dylan O’Harra, Knife is directed by Adair James and features a cast of veteran PJP actors, along with live music by the band Petty With a Prior.
PJP features formerly incarcerated actors in works that examine crime, punishment, and redemption. This program had its humble beginnings when 3-year-old Deborah Tobola accompanied her father, Charles “Chuck” Tobola, to lunch at the California Men’s Colony, where he worked as a guard. “Daddy, I like eating at the joint!” she told her father, not knowing that many years later, she would return to transform the lives of many of the men incarcerated there.
Deborah went on to get her master’s in creative writing at University of Arizona, and eventually returned to CMC as artist/facilitator in the Arts in Corrections program. There she and the inmates began to produce original theater that gave the men, even if briefly, an avenue to express themselves and remember that they were more than their crimes. She formed PJP in 2008 as a way of expanding the outreach to those who had been released from prison.
Plays produced over the past four years have contained both comedy and drama, varying from original musicals to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. But Tobola finds it particularly important that the works show audiences the side of prison life that they may not know from TV and the movies, such as the difficulty prison staff have in caring for the inmates. “There’s this line that you can’t cross,” she said in an interview with Capital Radio. “And also the degree of racial separation … for example, if a Caucasian inmate shares his food with an African American inmate, that can be a virtual death sentence.”