For 23 years, Cornerstone Theater Company has aimed for dramatic immediacy by enlisting communities caught up in contemporary issues and making plays out of the stories they tell. It has performed in an Oregon cattle barn, on the roof of the deconsecrated St. Vibiana's cathedral in downtown L.A. and on the National Mall in Washington. But until Saturday morning, Cornerstone never had done a play behind bars.
The result, during two-plus hours at the California Institution for Women, a state prison in Corona, said something about just how immediate theater can be.
"For All Time," which explores the place of forgiveness in our justice system, had its run last fall in downtown Los Angeles. On Saturday, director Laurie Woolery and her cast of 20 rose at dawn so they could bring the show to an audience of inmates -- several of whom would be seeing their own stories unfold.
The play is populated by perpetrators and victims, by a support group for ex-cons and by one for mothers of murdered children. Playwright KJ Sanchez shaped their words into rapidly shifting scenes and episodic, jump-cut stories, all aimed at getting a handle on some of the hardest questions haunting the dispensation of justice. When is a murderer's debt paid? When, and for whose sake, should those who've been wronged embrace mercy and forgiveness?
As in L.A., the playing space was a long, narrow strip, flanked on either side by the audience. About 120 inmates, a racially mixed group, sat in metal folding chairs, wearing sweats, jeans or loose-fitting dark blue prison slacks and smocks.
The show wasn't all heavy-going. Wry humor looped through it, and the women nodded, murmured agreement or laughed and clapped at ironies that rang true. What, one of the ex-cons asks, is the difference between a public defender and a lawyer? "A public defender is going to get you the best deal. A lawyer is going to get you off."
Applause also greeted parts that lampooned the system for its race and class disparities. "Lady Liberty is blind when it comes to my kind," actor Ramona Gonzales intoned in a poem that had been woven into the script. Its author, April Adkins, watched from a few feet away.
More often, the room seemed to hold its breath.
At intermission, Ann Hull, a large woman with a thick, electric shock of hair beneath a woolen ski cap, said she'd been pierced by the words and the anguished tone of one of the actors. D'Lo was his name, and his roles included delivering the choruses from the text of Aeschylus' ancient Greek tragedy "The Oresteia," which moved the 28-year-old inmate.
"So much desolation. So much despair," Hull said. Whether other prisoners would admit it or not, she said, they all wrestled privately with those feelings. She didn't know "The Oresteia," which tells of horrible crimes followed by bloody retribution and of a struggle to temper justice with mercy and end the cycle of vengeance.
By intermission, Andrea Cutchon had decided to skip another obligation -- a rehearsal of the prison's Polynesian dance group -- to catch the second act. "It makes you think about the things you've done in your life, the effect you have on people," she said. Asked about the classic masks of comedy and tragedy tattooed on her arm, the ponytailed young woman said that, no, they didn't mean she was a theater buff. She'd gotten them when she was dealing drugs, and with the accompanying script, "play at your own risk," the masks were a warning to the world: no tricks, no games, keep me smiling -- or else the tragedy will be yours.
While others milled about during the break, inmate Romarilyn Baker sat quietly alone. Then Kyri Owens, the assistant public information officer who was part of the prison team that embraced Cornerstone's project, came over and asked what she thought of the play. Baker had led the eight-woman inmates' group that shared personal stories with the dramatists.
"It's uh, it's heavy," said the tall, slender woman, who is serving a life sentence for murder.
In an interview Friday, Warden Dawn Davison said she had felt strongly that the project, capped by the free performance, would serve the process of rehabilitation. "Hopefully, it'll touch some place within."
Catharsis -- that inner touching that the ancient Greeks considered the payoff of effective drama -- took hold during the second act. It brought a hush to the hall, where a sign posted by the door read, "Thinking about suicide? With help comes hope! Honor your life. Talk to any staff member now."
In a monologue delivered through tears, actor Marcenus "M.C." Earl, himself an ex-convict who served time for a 1995 bank robbery, told of two long-separated brothers who were able to meet and embrace in a prison cell, thanks to a guard's act of mercy. Sarah Gonzales, a graying inmate with a long, Native American-style braid down her back, rose from her front-row seat and handed Earl some tissues. He grasped them and went on without interruption. When Earl and Joshua Lamont performed the embrace, the audience broke into sustained applause. In L.A. the scene always elicited quiet sniffles, Earl said.
"Our job with downtown audiences was for them to realize these are people," actor Lamont said after the show. "Here, it was to let them know there is life, and there is hope for you, no matter what. [Prison] doesn't define who you are, it's just a circumstance. Keep your head up and keep hoping."
The play, Baker affirmed, "outdid any of our expectations." She had seen herself played by Bahni Turpin as a wise "lifer" who helps a newly arrived inmate, then is left reeling by a denial of parole. What had hit home the most, Baker said, was watching the bereaved mothers trying to sort through the grief, pain and rage of a child's murder, clinging to each other because even their own families were telling them, "You need to move on."
"Those words have crossed my mind so many times, but they never will again," Baker said softly. "People have to take all the time they need to heal."