Deborah Tobola’s favorite students are criminals—or were criminals, anyway. A petite white woman with a no-nonsense haircut, Tobola has built a career in the literary and dramatic arts within the gray confines of state prisons. After successful stints at California Correctional Institution, North Kern State Prison, and California Men’s Colony, Tobola founded the Poetic Justice Project, a theater company comprised of formerly incarcerated writers, musicians, artists, and actors.
- PHOTO BY DEBORAH TOBOLA
Tobola’s father had once been a prison guard. (“The night I was born he was chasing an escaped convict,” she said cheerfully. “So he missed my birth.”) But she began her own prison-based career, it seems, more out of creative necessity than any drive to follow in her dad’s footsteps.
After earning her master’s in creative writing at the University of Arizona, Tobola said, “I came back to California and the teaching jobs were starting to disappear—and the prison systems were starting to expand.”
Finding her niche in the prison system’s Arts in Corrections program, Tobola taught poetry and creative writing for the first few years. Her move to drama was the result of a challenge to her creative writing class to create a script for a showcase of what they had learned.
“The deal was, we never put it on paper, really, and so it was like improv,” Tobola said.
“And there were a couple of guys, I never knew what they were going to say,” she added, laughing.
Their impromptu performance was wildly successful among other inmates and prison staff, and the question that immediately followed—what’s the next show?—is one that Tobola has been concerning herself with ever since.
Over the course of the next few years, under Tobola’s direction, the state prison system would produce a slew of dramatic literature. Themes of crime, incarceration, unspoken prison codes, and racial segregation behind bars would be addressed in original plays like Blue Train, Where on Earth, All’s Good That Ends Good, and Checkmate.
- PHOTO BY JUDY TALAUGON
For Tobola, the move from working with the locked up to the recently let out (she often goes to parole meetings, scouting for new talent) meant she could bring her productions to a much wider audience. A “Prison Town Tour” of the original play Off the Hook was well received as much for its artistic merit as for its grippingly authentic look into prison life.
Poetic Justice Project shows often include “talk-backs,” question-and-answer sessions following every performance. She remembered what happened after a recent show at a high school: “I said, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask anything.’ [One of the students] said, ‘How many of you have killed someone?’ Three people raised their hand. We wanted to really get the message across to them that this is not a place you want to go. And somehow, all the mainstream media glamorizes prison. … Some kids think of it as a rite of passage and expect to go. They think it’s cool or something.”
The current production Of Mice and Men, directed by Jake McGuire, is somewhat of a deviation for the Poetic Justice Project, the first time the theater company is presenting non-original material. The group’s purpose is to channel gritty life experience into compelling stage performances, and its plays, even the comedies, from Tobola’s description, seem to have a certain heaviness to them. So it’s difficult to picture these actors doing just any play, telling a life story different from their own. But from the opening scene, the dusty, disillusioned world of Steinbeck’s novel proves a perfect fit.
Guillermo Willie is authentic as George Milton, the migrant worker who—with his big, slow friend Lennie Small, played by Nick Homick—begins the story with their journey to find work on a California ranch. As the play progresses, it’s clear this is not a world where people stick together, and George and Lennie’s friendship is something of an anomaly among the lone, silent workers they meet upon their arrival at
It’s a tricky feat to portray a character with a mental disability: You’ve got to be willing to let your inhibitions slide without dipping into offensive caricature. But Homick largely pulls it off, portraying a believable Lennie whose presence is by turns loveable and frustrating. Lennie, unaware of his own physical strength, loves soft animals but often crushes them. He is easily upset and just as easily consoled by George’s oft-repeated description of the home the two of them will one day have.
When the two men show up at the ranch to work, George does the talking. They are hired by The Boss, played by Jon Vinas, and soon meet the group of ranch hands with whom they will be working.
Phil Jones delivers a wonderfully crusty performance as Candy, the one-handed handyman, and Jorge Manly Gil portrays Curley, The Boss’ son and the jealous husband of a flirtatious woman referred to, quite tellingly, simply as “Curley’s wife” (Tina Levitan).
Cooper Wise portrays a likeable Slim, a mule driver, and director McGuire brings his abundant acting talents to the role of significantly less likeable ranch-hand Carlson. Maux Samuel is Whit, and William Brown delivers a mesmerizing performance as the broken-down stable hand Crooks.
Shawn Collins composed the musical score, and Roy Henry—a mainstay of the Legends shows—effectively sets the mood of several pivotal scenes with his rich singing voice.
Lennie’s easily manipulated emotions, penchant for soft things, and ignorance of his own physical power have landed him and George in deep trouble before—and it’s only a matter of time before trouble will catch up to this good-hearted but ill-fated pair. In classic Steinbeck style, dreams of the idyll just over the horizon are never realized, but are just tangible enough to keep the protagonists struggling. Good intentions lead to devastating results. Good people do atrocious things because they are desperate, or don’t know better.
As an audience, we are familiar with these themes. They were all covered in high school English. This is not quite the case, however, for many of the individuals onstage, who are brave enough to take us to that place where their reality and Steinbeck’s Depression-era fiction intersect.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner knows how to spot idylls. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.