Poetic Justice “Off the Hook”

by on September 17, 2010 · 6 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, From the Soul, Labor, San Diego

Off the Hook castI just received an email regarding an Ex-con play, an original musical drama, Off the Hook, featuring a 15 member cast of formerly incarcerated people, which will be performed this Saturday, September 18th, at 2:00 PM at Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center at 3925 Ohio Street.

It’s part of the 2010 Poetic Justice Project Prison Town Tour and the show has already entertained people in Sacramento, Fresno, Tehachapi, Redding and Bakersfield. Now it’s our turn.

The piece takes an in depth and daring look at what goes on inside California prisons, exposing the ever-present threat of violence and racial segregation that exists there, the separation of family, the danger of becoming too close to others and, finally, the triumph (good vs. evil) of the human spirit over hardships in life.

Just reading what I’ve googled about Off the Hook reminds me of one of my best friends growing up, one of the brightest and, at the same time, one of the most confused people I’ve ever known, a combination that’s landed many a person in the hoosegow.

He was Mister “get rich quick,” a schemer supreme and would almost rather fight than eat ice cream. I hung with him through elementary and junior high but by the time I graduated from high school I was more than worn out lying to his mom why he was so out of breath when he got home or why his knuckles were bloody and his nose on his face crooked.

I headed off to college and he drifted into a life of serious law breaking and we didn’t see each other for decades, in part because he was in the lockup for decades. Then I got a call one day out of the blue from my old sidekick and nearly in tears he told me how much he had missed me all the years we were apart and how he had wished he had listened to me when I tried to steer him in the right direction back when we were young and fancy free. I had to admit I felt the same way but I was a little leery about where our conversation was heading until he told me he had finally walked away from his Jesse James ways.

Man, had he ever. He said one day sitting in his cell, it just hit him, how he had thrown so much of his life away like so many pieces of trash. He vowed to get out and do something with his life and what he did was go to college and afterwards he dedicated his energy to counseling others who couldn’t control their violent natures and impulses to get something for nothing. His contributions to troubled folks in our hometown earned him recognition by 100 Black Men of America, Inc.

And I’ve never been so proud of anyone as I have been of my old friend. And I’m thinking that the former inmates in Off the Hook must have similar stories regarding how they’ve turned their lives around and managed to keep on the straight and narrow. My buddy never returned to the Big House and hopefully these creative artists – who have served time one time or another from one night to 38 years – won’t either.

Their goal is: to depict things as they really are, “not like they are on TV,” says Deborah Tobola, who wrote the book of the musical. She worked for many years coordinating arts programs at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo County. After leaving the job she’s continued her theatrical productions using former inmates.

My old friend discovered that it helps people who’ve been removed from society when someone like the Deborah Tobolas of the world offers them opportunities to shine. And there’s no greater gift, nothing more uplifting to the spirit than the sound of a nice round of applause to an actor’s ears. I know because these old ears have heard many a hand being put together at curtain call.

So hopefully enough of us, on this short notice, will be in the audience at Queen Bee’s to do just that, give the Off the Hook cast a nice around of applause, a boost as they focus on original works “that,” as Tobola points out, speak to crime, punishment and redemption.”

These actors have done the crime, done the time and now theater goers can play a role as they face a lifetime of redeeming themselves. Everybody wins.

ticket info: 1-800 838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Virginia Franco September 17, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Ms. Deborah Tobola’s dedication to her art and to the people she continues to serve, coupled with your article of one such life, Ernie, never lets me forget how just one individual can move a heart and mind in wonderful, transformative ways.

Thank you, both,
Virginia Franco


Ernie McCray September 17, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Thank you, amiga.


Lauren September 17, 2010 at 2:02 pm

It sounds wonderful. I can’t wait to see it.

Redemption, in whatever form, is a worthy cause.



Ernie McCray September 17, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Redemption is a concept, I think, that society should ponder a bit more than we do, something we should become a bit more adept at allowing.


annagrace September 17, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Ernie- I experienced such a rush of thoughts and feeling when I read your post. Between working in the Central library for over 20 years and living in City Heights, and taking buses back and forth between the two I have had many opportunities to listen to the stories of men and women who have been incarcerated. Many of them shared their very personal stories of “crime, punishment and redemption. ” They have sent me letters and written autobiographies that I would love to publish under a pseudonym. It is worth noting that the crime in some instances was sleeping in a doorway. I have been called upon professionally to point the way toward a new life of schooling and jobs and how to avoid the personal traps and demons. Note: Jobs are pretty damn hard to find if you are a registered felon. Think about that- how many applications are there for every available position? And what are your odds if you have been incarcerated? It is also hard to get into a graduate program if you are a registered felon and either feel compelled or are required to tell the truth about your past. Is there life, meaningful life, after “redemption?” I am also painfully aware that people released from the county jail- not felons- end up on the bus with the clothes on their back and bus fare to their destination, often the mid-city communities. Too often a deadly or deadening cycle begins again.

My Saturday was filled with a number of things, but I cleared the calendar to make sure that I would see this play Ernie. It is a bookend of sorts to the performance piece that I am going to see tomorrow evening (Saturday Sept 18) “Juanita Goes to College.” Teresa Gunn is my marvelous City Heights neighbor who grew up in Imperial Beach. Teresa founded the non-profit Street of Dreams which works with kids who are wards of the court and in the Juvenile Justice system. These are our children who could be on the way to “Off the Hook.”

Read about Juanita Goes to College here: http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/sep/16/teresa-gunns-trailer-park-queen-inspires/

More info about Street of Dreams here: http://musiciansforeducation.org/our-mission.html


Ernie McCray September 17, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Thanks, Anna Grace, for adding so much depth to this discussion about people trying to get on with their lives in a world that can be so unforgiving at times. I can’t wait to read about Juanita and Street of Dreams for more insight into our “systems.”


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