At The Actors’ Gang, watching ‘(Im)migrants of the State,’ in mutual migration


It packs a wallop. So seeing it on a Sunday matinee was a nice way to go. After being intensely swept into a theatricalized showcase created and performed by a compelling chorus of the formerly incarcerated, I felt blessed to walk freely into the late-afternoon sun.

It’s (Im)migrants of the State, a workshop-style production at The Actors’ Gang in Culver City, developed and acted by members of The Actors’ Gang Alumni Advocacy Project, a long-running social-action program of Artistic Director Tim Robbins. For seventeen years, the theater’s Prison Project has been creating transformational opportunities for incarcerated men and women throughout the California Correctional system. An ensemble of Prison Project alumni with over 240 years of combined incarceration have found to a Robbins’s cozy nest of a theater. Equipped with simple props and staging devices, they tell their stories.

One of them writes in the program notes,

“You’ll never meet a cooler, calmer, more grounded and collected fella. This wasn’t the case before 2016. Having come home after spending 30 years in prison, I can only begin to share what putting on a play with twelve other folks like myself has meant.”

Rich Loya, performer in (Im)migrants of the State

The Actors’ Gang Prison Project rehabilitation program is functioning in 14 California state prisons, 2 reentry facilities, and Los Angeles County Probation camps and halls for juveniles. The program starts as a 7-day, 4-hour-a-day intensive theatrical arts program which transitions into an ongoing weekly peer-led class. Its alumni program serves as a support system and platform for individuals to continue training and become teaching artists. There are currently 56 formerly incarcerated participants in the Alumni Advocacy Project, and 19 of them work as Teaching Artists.

The surprisingly skillful proto-professional actors, each a formerly incarcerated individual, sparks the energy propelling a ninety-minute, intermissionless show. A knitted-together series of vignettes span from family background and childhood; acts of violence or criminality (often but not always at a young age); encounters with the legal and court systems, and then, baby, it’s on to the Big House. Cast members play an array of colorful roles. You’ll be surprised by the extent to which you relate.

A devastating litany of self-introductions, brief soliloquies stating name, crime, and penal sentence, is the simple, forceful and shocking start-up to the show. The crevasse that separates “them” from “us,” is narrow. But equally it is deep. Kudos to these brave human beings for crawling out of it.

Thankfully, the show carries the tone not of victimization; rather, of agency. If you go see (Im)migrants of the State, I guarantee you will learn, feel, laugh, and you will empathize. You will ponder your own fate. Trust me in that. And by the way, the show is, in great part, about trust.

(Im)migrants of the State | The Actor’s Gang, Culver City, CA | thru May 13, highly recommended

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