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Blythe: habitat, healing, and a suppressed play unchained

Carol Denney
Saturday November 26, 2016 - 10:48:00 AM
Dan McMullan, director Leah Joki, and the cast of Blythe answer questions at the forum after the performance.
Carol Denney
Dan McMullan, director Leah Joki, and the cast of Blythe answer questions at the forum after the performance.
Ferry passengers on their way to Alcatraz.
Carol Denney
Ferry passengers on their way to Alcatraz.
Dan McMullan during his incarceration at Blythe.
Thomas McMullan
Dan McMullan during his incarceration at Blythe.

This is an unusual story of habitat, creativity, punishment, redemption, and recovery which won't be obvious for several paragraphs. It begins with some observations about a native California bird, pelicanus californicus, which almost disappeared a few decades ago.

The California Brown Pelican Recovery Plan by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1983 is 179 pages of earnest, early effort to save a species from pollutant and habitat-related reproductive failures. The only viable colonies of the bird once plentiful along the west coast by the 1960's were in Florida.

The surveys and documentation in the plan are followed by articulate, unemotional discussions of habitat needs for species survival and frank discussion of the fact that at the time there existed "little or no protection" of colony sites aside from the Mexican Navy, which accidentally protected certain breeding sites from human disturbance.

"The basic habitat needs of the California brown pelican are: 1) a disturbance- and predator-free nesting area, 2) offshore habitat with an adequate food supply, and 3) appropriate roosting sites for both resident and migrant pelicans." - California Brown Pelican Recovery Plan, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Pollutants, notably DDT, had reduced egg shell thickness by 50% by 1969, so that most eggs collapsed during incubation, work shared by both parents. Noise pollution played a role as well, making habitat protection even from aircraft a priority for the pelicans' survival along with anchovy harvest quotas and other protective measures.

It took years, but it worked. Now the tourists on the ferry to Alcatraz Island, the Spanish word for pelican, can see a sight not seen since the early 1950's; long strings of pelicans fishing together on the bay, their elegant profiles backlit by the sun.

Alcatraz is home to another recovery; the transformation of its notorious prison, established in 1868, to a national landmark in 1986 which acknowledges in its rangers' interpretive talks the nineteen month-long occupation by protesting native tribes with a hint of pride.

On November 5, 2016, about a hundred people took the ferry to see the Poetic Justice Project's presentation of Blythe, a play by local author Daniel McMullan, in the former industrial arts building on the island, a building with no facilities except for its 360 degree view of the bay and a large area with seating and a simple stage. 

You probably know Danny McMullan if you live in Berkeley. He may or may not use a wheelchair, depending on his health on any given day. He is often accompanied by his sparkling wife Katy and their whip-smart boys Nicolas, 16, and Thomas, 14, who took the train with him to see the play's opening in San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande. He's a commissioner, an activist, and the guy with the quick wit and the broad smile who can disarm an entire room with a perfectly timed joke while keeping his eye on a collective goal. He says his wasn't the worst prison in California -- people only got killed every other day. And he never thought Blythe, the play named for the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in the California's southeastern desert would ever be performed. 

The play won first prize twenty-five years ago in a state-wide contest for formerly incarcerated people and had been scheduled for a reading at the Ivar Theater in Los Angeles sponsored by Ed Asner and Edward James Olmos. But the warden stopped the play from being performed, concerned that his prison would receive an unflattering portrayal. 

He needn't have worried. The play is a comedy, rich in timeless human shortcomings, set in a cafe near the prison which, except for the distinctive fonts and fashions of the time, could have been written about the same issues today. The cast of actors, all formerly incarcerated, beautifully illustrate a small town's hopes for the economic boost the prison's promoters promised for the local people. In the deceptively ordinary movements of an ostensibly ordinary day, they wrestle with themes of redemption and punishment with deft, moving, and humorous performances, hitting a boom box for brief accompaniment and floridly raking the hands of the large clock forward to show the passage of time. 

It's a tight performance without a wasted moment or word. Not a single word has been edited from the original script, according to the director. Attention was rapt and the helpless laughter sincere. And what followed, a discussion of the show's origin, the Poetic Justice Project's work, and the personal journeys of the cast, author, and director, was equally compelling judged by an audience that stayed for every word. Their personal recoveries from trauma, their amazement at how wearing an officer's costume affects the way they feel, their sense of the clarifying challenges of working together and helping each other as a theatrical team were discussed with a riveting honesty. 

Danny McMullan seems pretty relaxed about it all. His play Blythe, twenty-five years after its suppressed debut, has now had performances in Santa Cruz, Santa Maria, Arroyo Grande, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Alcatraz Island, Studio City, Hollywood, and includes an upcoming performance in March at the Los Angeles Arts Festival. 

The Poetic Justice Project, founded by Artistic Director Deborah Tobola, has had 16 productions involving around 100 formerly incarcerated people since its beginning in 2009. Dan has attended some of the Blythe performances, most recently in Los Angeles, and the memoir, "Juilliard to Jail" written by Blythe's director, Leah Joki, is currently being developed into a film. 

"It was the Two Roads in Studio City where I met Joe Manganiello and his brother Nick, who bought the book "Julliard To Jail" that has two chapter; one about the play, and one about me called named 'Black Irish'," said McMullan. "I told Joe, "You can play me....if you work out some." 

Perhaps it seems obvious that "La Isla de los Alcatraces,", or Alcatraz, the island named for a native bird once close to extinction in California now one of its most obvious environmental successes, the island converted from a notorious prison to a national recreation area with a ridiculous gift shop which only recently hosted an art exhibition by suppressed, imprisoned contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, is the perfect setting for a larger meditation on habitat, freedom, creativity, and recovery. 

Danny McMullan had never written a play before writing Blythe. "I wrote the play at the urging of Leah Joki, director of Arts-In-Corrections (AIC) at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. I was her inmate clerk." McMullan now supports and speaks publically about the new era of AIC. 

"She heard about a play writing competition and we were working on a book of monologues called 'Monologues From A Cold, Roach Infested Cell' in which my contribution was 'Tales From My Leg,' a collection of crazy stuff that happened to me because of my prosthetic leg. She thought I might be good at it." 

"The idea came from reading the local paper and reading a story about the new prison guard populations' dislike for the city and a bumper sticker going around saying 'Happiness is seeing Blythe in your rearview mirror' and imagining what a person that lived their whole life there would feel, react, and who they would be." 

The play is more than successful at painting this portrait, a portrait that at the time of McMullan's incarceration he could only imagine. The small town that surrounds a prison is doing its own kind of time, making the best of its own confines whether a dead-end job or a very small pool of social and sexual options. The cast of Blythe is masterful at subtle comedic elements which craft a deeply moving story in the middle of comic opportunity. 

McMullan "studied other plays for a day or so" then retyped his effort in those pre-word processor days over 22 times. He has another play, "A Man Down in the Warehouse", that he's finally going to finish, and says maybe he'll "write a couple more." When the play's initial performance twenty-five years ago was scratched by the warden at the time, Julian Marquez, who allowed the second-place and third-place play readings to go on, McMullan says he let it go; the warden's decision came at the same time as the police killing of Rosebud Denovo, an activist in Berkeley who was shot in the back. As McMullan puts it; 

"This all went down at the same time that Rosebud was killed so I never would of made it to the play anyway. And though I was disappointed that I didn't get the promised internship with Paramount Studios, who knows where that could of led, I didn't want to hurt the Arts-In-Corrections program as a whole or Leah Joki particularly. Raising too much of a stir could of hurt her and she was so kind to me. So I let it go." 

"I think now is the time that the universe intended for this," McMullan continued. "And it has been fun and moving to be a part of the whole process. To work with Poetic Justice has been my poetic justice and it is complete and beautiful." 

McMullan took the ferry to Alcatraz with family, friends, a few reporters, and dozens of long parades of once-rare brown pelicans skimming the waves, sailing the skies, and fishing from schools of species returning to bay waters in steady recovery. The Poetry Justice Project was launched in the same year that pelicanus californicus was finally removed from the endangered species list, a victory which took decades of stewardship by generations to secure. 

McMullan now sits on the nationally acclaimed Street Spirit's advisory board, founded and directs the twenty year-old Disabled People Outside Project, is a current commissioner on the Human Welfare and Community Action Commission for the City of Berkeley, and is a tireless activist on human rights issues throughout the Bay Area. Winning first prize as a playwright came as a complete surprise to him, as much of a surprise as the play's suppression. But the play, the poetic justice, and the program that brought it to life is having an unexpected renaissance during an otherwise confounding political moment in time. 

The turnaround for pelicans' survival was a deceptively simple one: 1) a disturbance- and predator-free nesting area, 2) offshore habitat with an adequate food supply, and 3) appropriate roosting sites for both resident and migrant pelicans. These relatively simple needs have great relevance for human survival and recovery, for issues of homelessness, and for art to thrive as a full-throated part of a healthy community which may depend, more than it may presently realize, on art to help a broken society move toward healing, health, and the realization of our shared creative opportunities. 

Danny McMullan's moment of recognition may seem improbable from some perspectives. But his moment also offers us an opportunity to consider how, given a nurturing and receptive habitat, our brothers and sisters behind bars might literally play a role in helping us heal. 

The Poetic Justice Project advances social justice by engaging formerly incarcerated people in the creation of original theatre that examines crime, punishment and redemption, and can be contacted at:

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