In the chapel at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, Calif., 12 convicted criminals staged a wedding.­ The situation was getting tense: The groom had cold feet, the bride’s former boyfriend was causing trouble, the wedding ring was missing and none of the entertainment staff had been paid. The story unfolded with a series of improvised scenes — argument, scheming, panic and accusation — that continually upped the dramatic ante, building to a teetering climax when, suddenly, like a violent complaint from reality, an earthquake struck the prison. Everyone huddled under a doorframe and waited. Once the rumbling had passed, guards arrived, called roll and escorted the prisoners back to their rooms. The workshop ended 45 minutes early and the wedding, unresolved, was over.

The young men who left the chapel that day are wards of the state — aged 18 to 25 years old — who were sent to the facility’s Juvenile Hall as minors and who have since graduated to the Youth Correctional Facility in Chino to serve out the remainder of their sentences. Their crimes, committed when they were underage, do not warrant detention in the “Big House,” but are still severe enough — homicide, rape, aggravated assault — to earn the guys five or 10 years. They’re neither “minors” nor “inmates,” but fall under the heading of “wards.”

I worked this summer in Chino with The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company, which runs 12-week playwriting and performance programs for incarcerated and at-risk youth in various detention facilities in the Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Typically a staff of “teaching artists” runs the programs, and I helped out in playwriting workshops at two of the sites: the Chino prison and Glenn Rockey Probation Camp. By teaching story structure, character, want and conflict with improvisation and writing exercises, we gave the participants tools to write an original play by the workshop’s end. The real purpose of these programs is not to discover the next generation of screenwriters — it is to promote tolerance.

“People from different groups working together for a common goal helps to break down stereotypes and notions of difference,” said playwright David Henry Hwang, who sits on the Unusual Suspects Advisory Board, when I interviewed him in July for the organization’s monthly newsletter. “And I think there’s an additional benefit to working on an artistic project, because that necessitates that you contribute a lot of yourself and your emotions and be vulnerable to one another.”

Though I was admittedly nervous to start at Chino (guard towers, metal detectors, barbed wire), I soon slipped into an idealistic complacency. The Unusual Suspects only allows A-Level wards — those on their best behavior — to participate.

From the first day, I was stunned by the response and enthusiasm of the wards. As the weeks went on, I caught myself believing wholeheartedly in the regenerative power of the theater. I even spent time before and after the workshops talking with these guys about music, shoes and what they planned to do “on the outs.” But even as I became friendly with the prisoners, little things would remind me of the harsh reality of their lives: I learned one day that one of our participants had been demoted to B-Level status for performing sexual favors; I heard one of the prisoners say his hoped-for parole hearing, which could have resulted in his release, hadn’t even happened because the authorities had somehow misplaced his documents — the third time in a row.

When the guys at Chino spoke about their life in the prison, it was mostly with a sense of sadness and frustration, but at Camp Glenn Rockey, where I started working in the afternoons, the dominant emotion was anger. The incarcerated population at Camp Rockey consisted of minors under 18, whose crimes — drugs, vandalism, grand-theft auto — were not severe enough for Juvenile Hall and have earned them a few months at a probation camp.

On my first day at Rockey, the Unusual Suspects staff and I stood up in front of a packed gymnasium and talked about our program. By the time I performed the recently written “Unusual Suspects Rap” (rapping in tandem with another white guy on the staff), the entire place was laughing — at us. Which is funny, because the kids at Rockey act tough. Even though they are incarcerated for relatively minor offenses, some of them posture like they are the kings of their hoods. They are, after all, adolescent males.

In the beginning, each day was a struggle. By the second week, after the kids had written character profiles (non-human), we asked for volunteers to go up in front of the others — in character — and respond to questions from the audience: What’s your greatest fear? What’s your life’s motto? What are your habits? The first boy to be interviewed had created a character named Kiwi the Lion. There was some snickering from the audience. The second person to volunteer created Poncho the Snail. His performance was greeted with uproarious laughter. Confused, I looked to the kid sitting next to me. “You get why they’re laughing?” he asked. When I said no, he explained that “Kiwi” was a gang dis. The first volunteer had insulted someone else’s hood, and so the target felt obliged to stand up and counter with “Snail,” a slur against Vail Street (“Snail Street”), the first guy’s gang. At Rockey, we became accustomed to breaking up small physical scuffles — but often the real tensions were too subtle, or too encrypted, for us to prevent.

After a few weeks at Rockey, one of the kids came up to Matt Orduna, one of the teaching artists, and asked him if we also worked with the men at Chino. “Yeah,” Matt said, “And they’re better than you guys.” The kid seemed surprised to hear this. Matt continued: “Those guys are worried about getting shanked and raped, so when they see something good come along, they pay attention.”

Most of the kids at Rockey, Matt told me later, see incarceration as only temporary. The guys at Chino, by comparison, have felt the weight of years in prison. This doesn’t mean that the minors don’t return multiple times to probation camp. They do, and the teaching artist is simultaneously glad to see the kid again and sad that they’ve returned to camp.

Near the end of the summer, I told a friend that I had developed affection for the Rockey kids, and I went on to describe the guys at Chino in glowing terms, almost gushing about their wit and humor and writing talent. My friend looked at me, clearly upset: “You know, you’re talking about murderers and rapists like they’re your best friends.” And I realized she was right. Had I been so insulated — even blinded — by the A-Level bubble that I imagined these prisoners to be guys I could actually hang out with?

Ultimately, I don’t think I have been. I know the guys at Chino and Rockey are not my “best friends,” but I also know they’re not horrible people. My interactions with these guys were no different than they’d be with anyone else, except the order of events was reversed: Rather than form perceptions first (based on demeanor and personality) and later learn the person’s history, I was confronted with the history (or an abstracted version) before even shaking hands. It’s an unfortunate situation. And who knows: Maybe I was fooled by their con man’s charm (a Chino staff member once told me offhandedly that the prisoners don’t need any acting lessons from a theater group), but I suspect it wasn’t so simple. Most of them are genuinely likable people, with real talent, and I found myself caring deep
ly for many of them. I think anyone in my situation would have felt the same.