John E. Pizzini’s first attempt at college didn’t end as planned. At Michigan State University he studied engineering — a path his father pushed him to pursue — and he hated it. About two years after enrolling in 1979, he dropped out and left school with a drug addiction.
Four prison terms and a move to California later, Pizzini took a second shot at his education in 2014. But this time he pursued his passion, receiving an associate’s degree in theater arts in 2018 and enrolling in Cal State Long Beach’s theater program this year. Now 58, Pizzini spotted a flyer promoting auditions for “In the Penal Colony,” an adaptation of Philip Glass’ 2000 opera by the university’s California Repertory Company in collaboration with Long Beach Opera.
With a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer based on the 1919 short story by Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony” tells of the high-ranking Visitor invited to a foreign island to observe the execution of a prisoner by a barbaric torture device. The prison’s commanding Officer operates the device, which carves the condemned prisoners’ crimes into their flesh. The Officer struggles to persuade the Visitor to support its use.
The university production is set in present day and incorporates stories from formerly incarcerated Cal State Long Beach students including Pizzini.
Pizzini made his stage debut last week as one of eight prisoners in the nearly sold-out production, which runs through Sunday. Wearing pale-blue jumpsuits, the Cal Rep actors huddled in and around a giant illuminated glass box, the prison where they were held and tortured.
A fragment of Pizzini’s own incarceration story is one of several heard by the audience: “I wasn’t raised like this.”
Playing a role so deeply familiar felt surreal, Pizzini said. After being sentenced to his first prison term in 1997, Pizzini recalled, he broke down in an elevator on his way to a holding room. “By the time it got to the first floor, there was only 12 feet between that elevator and the holding cell where there’s 50, 60, maybe even 100 guys in there waiting.”
Throughout the 90-minute production, the prisoners’ mini monologues highlight the real stories of the formerly incarcerated: seeing snow for the first time behind bars, being reduced from a person to just a number, working for less than 10 cents an hour.
The roles of the Visitor and the Officer are sung by two professional Long Beach Opera performers. When the Officer shows the torture machine to the Visitor, the prisoners embody the device, curling their hands into claws that descend onto the person strapped to the execution table.
The spark for this adaptation began about three years ago when Jeff Janisheski, artistic director of Cal Rep and director of “In the Penal Colony,” read an article about Rising Scholars, a support group on campus for formerly incarcerated students. Partnering with Long Beach Opera on Glass’ work seemed like a way to weave in true stories from the Rising Scholars. Janisheski also was motivated by the fact that an estimated 2.2 million Americans are imprisoned, and that the country has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
America is the penal colony, Janisheski said.
“The metaphor and the message of Kafka's story and the opera is that this machine leaves an indelible and brutal mark on people,” he said. “And that's what prisons do, they are places that leave a mark, leave a stigma, and that mark can sometimes never go away.”
Although the production follows Glass’ opera, Janisheski wanted to modify the work. “The original story only has one prisoner who actually never speaks,” he said. “But I didn’t feel it was politically viable at this point to stage a piece and continue to keep silent a group of people who … have been so silenced in our society.”
So last fall, Janisheski reached out to the Rising Scholars faculty advisor and later began interviewing students from the group.
The idea for the project seemed intriguing and a natural fit to Pizzini, even though he’s not a member of Rising Scholars. So he auditioned.
“It was something to be cast in a mainstage play my first semester here,” Pizzini said.
For Janisheski, casting Pizzini was a simple decision. “Not because I was trying to fill a quota,” Janisheski said. “I was deeply moved by his performance and him as a person.”
Pizzini brought context to the production as “someone who can talk to the other actors about his experience and provide that perspective that none of them have, that I don't have,” Janisheski said.
Fragments of Janisheski’s interviews were woven into the piece by playwright Juliette Carrillo. The mini monologues appear in expanded instrumental portions of the opera.
The 11 voices included in the fabric of the play represent “an overwhelming chorus of people who are imprisoned and brutalized by the machine,” Janisheski said.
When the show ended on opening night and the house lights came up, Irene Sotelo’s eyes were filled with tears. As a co-founding member of Rising Scholars who was interviewed for the work, watching her story play out onstage was an emotional experience.
“The different parts of you’re not human, you’re a number and you’re basically just state property — when they were shouting that out, you can feel it,” she said.
She sat in a corner of the theater with another Rising Scholars member, Adrian Vazquez, whose story about seeing snow for the first time in prison opened the show. “That made me cry,” she said. “I started crying right in the beginning. It felt like a flashback”
Raised in Norwalk, Sotelo saw her life take an early turn at age 11, when her mother committed suicide and Sotelo turned to drugs to ease the pain. She dropped out of school and got involved with gangs. By 18, though, Sotelo had tapered off hard drugs. By 21 she had her first child and lived with her husband as a “PTA mom.”
But in her early 30s, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and became addicted to pain medication. Her cancer went into remission, but within a year she was hooked on meth. She left her family to live on the streets. She turned to crime and was sentenced to three years in prison. After suffering a heart attack while incarcerated, she entered a substance-abuse program.
She left prison in her mid-40s and went back to school, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in criminal justice from Cal State Long Beach. Now 53, she’s pursuing her master’s in social work. Her plan is to help the formerly incarcerated get back on their feet, overcome trauma and reduce recidivism.
Although Sotelo’s story is one of redemption, she still wondered what people would think when Janisheski acknowledged the Rising Scholars onstage before the show began.
“There is a big stigmatization that we’re labeled ... that we’re bad,” she said. “We’re human like everybody else and make mistakes, but we don’t have to pay for it the rest of our lives.”
Pizzini called his life transition “a miracle.”
“I never in a million years thought I'd be in a play working with the Long Beach Opera, professionals of that caliber,” he said. He plans to pursue work as an actor and a yoga instructor.
Both Pizzini and Sotelo hoped “In the Penal Colony” would bring more awareness to the indignities of the prison industrial complex and the overall state of mass incarceration in California and across the U.S. Janisheski referred to one of the final lines in the opera: “Stop the machine.”
“I hope the audience seriously considers that line and takes on the moral weight of that statement that we need to stop this machine,” he said, “that this is not a viable system.”
‘In the Penal Colony’
Who: Cal State Long Beach’s California Repertory Company in collaboration with Long Beach Opera
Where: CSULB Studio Theatre, 1250 N. Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday- Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday