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Prisons and People 

click to enlarge preview_thousand-kites-hands.jpg

The play opens with a prison guard and a prisoner, each on a separate stage. They face the audience. They speak:

Guard: I am Guard. Not one guard, but many. I have one mouth, but speak with many voices. I have two ears, and I have heard many stories.
Prisoner: I am Prisoner. Not one prisoner, but many. I have one mouth, but speak with many voices. I have two ears, and I have heard many stories.
Guard: I am tall, short, all shades of color ...
Prisoner: male, female, vicious, (pause) kind ...
Guard & Prisoner (simultaneously): don't give a damn.
Prisoner: I do time.
Guard: I do time in eight hour shifts.
Prisoner: I do time all the time."

And then several choruses chime in, one at a time, as "the public." From there, they become different faces: friends and family of prisoners and guards, victims of prisoners. They argue. They tell personal stories -- the guard's scary first day; the college-bound son diverted to prison "for a little bit of nothing," his father laments; life in "the hole." And more. Facts are thrown in: "We are the people who live in communities where 50 new prisons have been built every single year for the past 20 years," says one chorus. Another replies: "You gotta be kidding! ... Who would believe that?!"

This is from the script of Thousand Kites, a play written by Donna Porterfield and based on a hip-hop radio DJ in Appalachia who began corresponding with prisoners in a Super Max prison. ("Kites" is prison slang for notes slipped cell to cell by prisoners.) Across the United States, community groups have produced the play, modifying it with local stories.

Thousand Kites comes to Humboldt this week, with the opening performance at 8 p.m. Friday, March 15, in Gist Hall at Humboldt State University. Subsequent performances are Friday, March 29 at 8 p.m. in the Native Forum on the HSU campus, and Sunday, April 7, at 2 p.m. in the Redwood Curtain Theater in Old Town Eureka.

Spoken-word artist/activist Vanessa Pike-Vrtiak, who produces, directs and acts in the local production, has added stories, including one based on her five-year correspondence with a Pelican Bay prisoner.

"He's been locked up since 19 and he's 26, now," she said. "He gets out when he's 50. He's in for murder; he was in a gang when he was a kid. And you can sense the remorse he feels, and the shame. He's in a single housing unit, by himself, and only gets outside for one hour a day."

In part of the play, Pike-Vrtiak embodies his story, telling how it was during his sentencing, how his mother looked so heartbroken and crushed. She said she knows what it's like to be the family left behind -- her mother was locked up for a while when she was a kid. Her uncle was in for burglary. Her stepfather has been locked up for a long time for murder.

"And I remember seeing them take him away," she said.

Throughout the production, speakers are backed by music by DJ Jay Collins.

The play -- and a criminal justice dialogue paired with it -- is designed to raise awareness, to help people heal, and to inspire development of more services for prisoners and their families, said Pike-Vrtiak. For example, perhaps prisoners could be assigned case managers when they get out, she said. And maybe, when a police officer comes into a home to take away a prisoner, there could be a little box on the form that says whether there was a child in the home.

"That is crucial, so someone can come in and followup with the child," she said. "I feel I would have greatly benefited from something like that."

The Criminal Justice Dialogue is March 28 and 29 at 6 p.m. in the Native Forum at HSU. Organized by the play performers and the local Child Abuse Prevention Council, it brings together Bay Area organizations, Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos, KHSU radio DJ Sista Soul and Humboldt County Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano.

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Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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