Why is the issue of recidivism—the tendency to relapse into criminal behavior—so important to you?
Recidivism, it seems to me, is a symptom of a larger issue. Why is it that more than half of all Americans who end up in jail, when released, go back? A lot of times this happens within hours. My state, California, has the highest recidivism rates in the nation. As a playwright, interesting facts like this sort of lodge in my brain when I hear them. When they are coupled with some fascinating images or one’s own history—I have worked in the Juvenile Detention System as a poet and writer since I was young—they start to form the thread of an interesting story. When I think about recidivism among prisoners, I wonder not about what’s ahead, but what one leaves behind when they get out. The comfort of a family one never had, a structure where one might not have lived with rules, the need for protection in a world that seems unsafe. What fascinates me most about prisoner recidivism is that there might be an alternate society out there—actually in there—that functions differently from the one we live in, and for some this is a better place.
I don’t think a play is ever really about one thing—it’s a combination of ideas, questions, opinions one has about the world and they start to resonate so strongly that they express themselves in the only way they can. And for me, that is as art. The issue of recidivism starts to make sense when I start to look at the compartmentalization of our culture through a more collective prism. This is very much an issue in my plays—we can’t improve race relations in this country if we are not going to deal with class, for instance. One of the many lives I have lived as an artist is as involved in social issues. At one point, I ran an organization for gay men of color in Los Angeles—an HIV/AIDS organization that worked on prevention issues. Although I don’t have HIV or AIDS, as an artist I was very interested in how the disease spread so quickly, especially among the poor and people of color. How do we talk to our community about its own health and life? It seemed to be a perfect job for a writer.
In what capacity have you worked with prisoners?
One can argue that I have never stopped working with prisoners—I teach at USC and have pretty much been facilitating conversations about art with young people since I became a professional artist myself. I studied with Maria Irene Fornes, who in my first day of workshop asked me what kind of plays I wanted to write. I had already been arrested for civil disobedience a number of times, and I said that I wanted to write political plays. She laughed and said that she hated political plays! I was ignorant and didn’t know her work, so I didn’t realize she was lying. She said I should stop writing and go live these political ideas and then come back and write a play about nothing, a rock, and she promised me it would be political. So, I did just that. I spent over ten years protesting, working with at-risk youth in the California Youth Authority. At one point, I even worked for the ACLU teaching protesters how to get properly arrested! But sure enough, I came back to writing and wrote from my heart, and politics and humanity were simply part of a larger organic mix. People who have made really big mistakes in their lives are very complicated people. They represent the complexity we are looking for in our work. Incarcerated children are missing elements that many of us take for granted—a notion of family, security, love, or even intelligence about the world. The first gig I had in a youth prison was a poetry workshop with teen felons, 12-17 years old. Five minutes into it I realized that none of them could read and few could write—which didn’t seem to matter because I couldn’t use pencils or pens anyway. No one told me this beforehand. Out of sheer terror and desperation, we stood in a circle, created a rhythm with our hands and bodies, and each student had to tell their life story through rap. I set some parameters about language and violence, and they were able to adapt. I could not ask them to write down their lives and crimes, but there was no law saying that they could not say out loud their histories. And they did, and the stories were extraordinary and sad and full of regret and fear and lack of hope. And that is when I realized that everyone is a playwright. Some of us just have training.
What prompted you to use Sophocles’ Oedipus to examine the issue of recidivism?
I wasn’t actually interested in Oedipus when I started. I wanted to write something that was not adapted, but then I went to visit Mary Hart, a wonderful Greek scholar at the Getty Villa in Malibu. She had presented a paper in Athens, Greece about another adaptation I had done, Electricidad, which is a Chicano take on Sophocles’ Electra. When I met Mary, I had just gotten back from visiting Father Gregory Boyle and his amazing organization in downtown LA, Homeboy Industries. Fr. Greg had agreed to let me interview some guys who worked or were clients at his gang-prevention organization. Mary had just come back from jury duty where she worked on a gang murder case. What I remember most about our conversation was that after that experience, Mary was truly convinced that the Greek classics were the stories of today.
In Greek drama, the chorus is a representation of the community. Does the Coro in Oedipus el Rey represent a community?
The Coro, which is very much an element in Mexican theatre and tradition, is both the incarcerated and those who live in the barrio. I grew up in the middle of the poorest, most violent LA neighborhood. The chorus of my life was the gang members holding up the wall at the corner, the mothers making tamales in the backyard, the call and response at mass, the kids on the playground, the fathers from the factory cashing their checks at Kay’s Pastrami stand, the alleluias (born-again Christians) singing hymns at MacArthur Park. There has always been a Coro in my life. And believe me, they all have opinions.
Have you seen recidivism and incarceration impact community solidarity and Chicano culture in the barrio?
People who have served time were definitely also people that lived in my community. Someone always seemed to have a loved one who was in jail or prison. It is, sadly, one of the conditions of poverty. People steal, people destroy, people lose hope in the absence of both spiritual and literal comfort. I had an uncle who was a member of the American Communist Party in the 1960s and 70s. He was jailed for destroying public property, and I felt a tremendous amount of pride in his incarceration. I felt his sadness, frustration, and his need to act in the face of such oppression. Both of my parents belonged to the United Farm-Workers union, and I was raised on public demonstration, images of injustice, and the severe penalty of poverty. I remember times in my youth when I was hungry for food and we had none. I also remember praying for hope, watching leadership grow, listening to Cesar Chavez speak to us from the back of a truck. I grew up hearing two sayings that still hold tremendous resonance for me: One is “Si se puede” (“Yes we can”), and the other is the Mayan concept called “In lak’ech,” which translates to “Tu ere mi otro yo” (“You are my other me”). To love and respect others is to love and respect your self, and to hurt others is to hurt your self.
You worked with Fr. Greg Boyle at Homeboy Industries during the early development of OEDIPUS EL REY. According to Fr. Greg, individuals join gangs, in part, because of the absence of hope and paternal figures. Does this hold true for your Oedipus?
One of the young men that Fr. Greg introduced me to was from an infamous LA gang. When he was 12, someone had put a hit on his older brother. In order to spare his brother, the rival gang had presented the individual with the opportunity to kill an enemy of both gangs. His father and uncle had already been killed in gang violence, and without guidance and good example, he did the thing he felt would save his family—and that was to give up his own life. He killed another man and spent 17 years in the SHU (Solitary Holding Unit). When I met this man, the most important thing he said to me was that he had never been touched. He had never known what it was to be hugged, until he got out. The guard, who watched over him for 17 years and actually retired on the same day that he was released, asked this inmate if he could hug him and pray with him. He calls this former corrections officer a father. Oedipus has a father, but something about him has always felt distant.
How does the concept of machismo inform Oedipus?
In prison, there are displays of power, and where you fall on those scales determines how you will live. It is a very structured society. The first thing you are told to do when you get to prison is to bulk up, to start to work your body into a defensive machine. Is it an act or is it preparation toward becoming a soldier? Probably a little bit of both. In the text of my play, there is a lot of stage direction about how Oedipus moves and works out. He is a young king and I think that it is expected of him to look like one. He expects that of himself as well. Tattoos not only present a visual deterrent of your power, they also are a canvas to display your history. The body becomes the only place where you can hold onto things.
Do you think the story of Oedipus posits that fate comes about through destiny or a series of personal choices?
The older I get the more obvious and beautiful the color gray becomes in my life—both in my hair and thoughts. The other day I was listening to a doctor who was talking about children, diabetes, and obesity. An average supermarket in a populated area serves 15,000 people. In South Central LA, the average supermarket serves 30,000-40,000. Access to fresh, un-processed foods is nearly impossible. Coupled with lack of transportation, among many factors, most children in South LA get their meals from fast food outlets and liquor stores. And even worse, most have no regular salads or fresh fruits in their diet. They are dependent on sugar, high sodium offerings, and processed meat. Tack on the over 50% high school drop-out rate, the single parent/working parent scenario, the access to inexpensive weapons, lack of jobs, and having witnessed a violent crime, domestic disturbance, or harm to animals before the age of 10. Do these factors help you make a very specific choice, or is this just the way of the world for some? The thing I love the most about the Greeks is how they pose a question and leave the audience to answer it. I have thoughts about Oedipus and his choices, or lack of them, but I am much more interested in what the audience has to say.
~John M. Baker, Production Dramaturg and Literary Manager