Friday, January 28, 2022     Volume: 22, Issue: 48

Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on October 28th, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 34 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 16, Issue 34

Poetic Justice Project presents an original play in its new micro theater


Having a place to call your own is a luxury many don’t fully appreciate until they are without it. Members of the Poetic Justice Project—a local nonprofit theater arts group made up of former inmates—know this firsthand, when the only semi-personal space they enjoyed during incarceration was a bunk in a shared cell.

The Poetic Justice Project (PJP) has also struggled for a number of years to find its own space, moving to and from various locations that both served and underserved the organization, explained Executive Director Deborah Tobola. Some places were too expensive for the nonprofit, which must remain dedicated primarily to its outreach mission, and others were a fair price but weren’t zoned for any kind of live performance.

The Poetic Justice Project’s production of 'Wizard of Grey Bar Hotel' tells of Dorothy (Caroline Hitch, pictured right), who navigates her way through prison in a plot that rhymes with 'The Wizard of Oz.'

The Santa Maria-based yet traveling theater group performed at a number of venues in Redding in 2011, Tobola said, and one location particularly stood out: an art loft so tiny that the performance space and the audience seating were completely contiguous.

“It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ so we had to put the audience members in among the actors,” she said. “It was actually very powerful and was one of our best shows.”

Tobola recounted the story from the hardwood floored, boxy interior of the Poetic Justice Project’s new location, the PJP Micro Theatre, located in one of Town Center West’s smallest locations between Rite Aid and Big 5 Sporting Goods. The new micro theatre will be the spot where PJP premiers its newest production, Wizard of Grey Bar Hotel, for its first two performances, where audience members will sit in chairs among the jumpsuit-wearing actors and tall, gray, barred set pieces.

The play is an original, Tobola said, penned by sisters Tina Grace and Rosemary Grace, who are both active in the organization. The story is a take on the famous Wizard of Oz plot but happens in a women’s institution, Chowkilla Prison, based on the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. 

For the acting ensemble’s two newest members, Brenda Del Valle and Rebecca Pico, the plot is hardly far from their own life experience. The two shared a cell in Chowchilla, and once their time was served, they joined the Poetic Justice Project. Their experiences of prison life certainly color their performance, they explained, but portraying a character is a new challenge for both, who perform live for the first time in Wizard of Grey Bar Hotel.


“My character is Leona,” Pico said, “and I’m supposed to be like a little badass, but I’m really not. My character plays the part of being a badass and not afraid of nothing, but really, I am.”

Del Valle added, “My character is a lifer who’s probably never going to get out. She’s been in front of the parole board and keeps getting shot down. So she’s kind of miserable and mean, a bully, and ornery.”

The cast includes the newcomers along with returning PJP actors, including Janet Guefs as Raven and Caroline Hitch as the lead character, Dorothy. Hitch became involved in PJP when she was 19, after a troubled youth including substance abuse, homelessness, and short stints in local institutions, she explained in between rehearsal sessions at the Micro Theatre.

Her character embodies the helpless, fish-out-of-water feelings anyone has when incarcerated for the first time, Hitch said. And even though she never served prison time in her own life, her experiences in juvenile detention and county jail certainly give her a lot to relate to in the play.

“I got swooped up at an early age by the Poetic Justice Project, and because of the things I learned from the people I’ve worked with, I’ve been able to stay on a good road,” Hitch said. “So, I do kind of relate to this character, because I am kind of naïve too. And I’m the youngest in the cast, haven’t been to prison; so I am finding a lot of things to relate to in the part, which I didn’t think I would.”

Wizard of Grey Bar Hotel will include two, packed-as-sardines performances at the Micro Theatre, Tobola said, and will also show twice at Unity Chapel of Light to facilitate some larger audiences. The show also takes to the road with two performances in Arroyo Grande, one in Santa Cruz, and—a regular tradition for PJP—a performance at Alcatraz Island.

Catch the show
'Wizard of Grey Bar Hotel' by Tina Grace and Rosemary Grace is produced and performed by the Poetic Justice Project on Oct. 29 and 30 at 6:30 p.m. and Oct. 31 at 2 p.m. at the PJP Micro Theatre, 323-B Town Center West, Santa Maria. The production also includes two performances, on Nov. 1 and 15, at 3 p.m. at the Unity Chapel of Light, 1165 Stubblefield Road, Santa Maria. Cost is $10. More info: 264-5463 or

For longtime PJP actor Leonard Flippen, who’s enjoying his directorial debut with Wizard of Grey Bar Hotel, it’s a chance to see his involvement with PJP come full circle, he said. After acting for years with PJP, enjoying guidance with professionals and collaboration with fellow members, Flippen has the chance to return the favor to newcomers like Del Valle and Pico and offer guidance seasoned with his years of experience.

“It’s such a beautiful experience to watch them go through because you don’t know what you are headed for, and when you do go through the process it’s exhilarating, fulfilling, satisfying, and affirming,” he said, “especially for men and women who’ve been in institutions and have been ostracized in society. You go from being ostracized in society to being put at the pinnacle of society, in the spotlight, and it’s like, all of a sudden these people are applauding you.”

The themes and subject matter of the play offer the actors a transformative experience when their own memories of incarceration feed into the art, Flippen said. But it’s not just the actors who are transformed; the audience is as well, he said. The productions often change more than how the actors feel about themselves, but also radically shift an individual’s perspective on the people currently incarcerated in jails and prisons across the nation, he explained.

“It’s kind of hard to feel anti-social to a society that says, ‘We love you, fantastic, thanks for sharing with us,’” he said. “It’s really subtle, and that’s a key issue with people with criminal mentalities, is that the only way you can have a criminal mentality is to see yourself apart from society. This heals that, which is why [PJP] has such a low recidivism rate.”

Arts Editor Joe Payne doesn’t mind some applause either. Contact him at

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