One rule Leah Joki learned while working in prisons is that no one gets stabbed during a pie sale. You might knife someone or brawl any other time, but when the church folks show up with freshly baked fruit pies (or chain-store pizza) for an afternoon fundraiser, everyone’s on their best behavior.
“It’s a huge thing to get a real pizza from Dominoes or to get a big apple pie,” Joki says. “If something’s going to go down in the yard, it’s not then. You’re not going to interfere with someone getting their pie.”
Joki recently earned her master’s in theater at the University of Montana, but before that she spent almost 20 years teaching in California prisons through the Arts-in-Corrections program, which she helped establish in the early 1980s. She taught screenwriting to inmates and helped them put on plays, and through it all she came to know the complex subculture of 25-to-lifers. Joki’s new one-woman show, Prison Boxing, brings a few odd, funny details (like pie truces) and weaves them in with more tragic and heavy topics. In the piece she plays 14 characters, including a juvenile delinquent, an abused woman who kills her husband, a drug addict, a murder victim and a prison guard. It’s a window into her time working behind bars—she addresses the effect the Polly Klaas case and mandatory minimums had on the prison system, for instance—but the show is mostly a visceral exploration, through monologues, of the gray areas that develop in the system.
This isn’t the first time Joki has written about her prison experience. Her book, Juilliard to Jail, which was published late last year, chronicles her jump from a theater student at Juilliard to pioneer of the prison arts program. The book shows some of the ways theater upended the status quo inside prison. For instance, the stage was one of the few times you’d ever see races mix. In her chapter “Black Irish,” she talks about directing Indian in the Bronx for which she cast a black man and white man as friends. “When we went to bring in an audience they were afraid that they were going to get the crap beat out of them because they were on the stage being buddy-buddy,” she says. “I told them, ‘No, it’s theater. They’re going to be so impressed with you guys that for the first time they’re totally going to forget that.’ And they really kind of became rock stars.”
After she self-published the book, she started hearing that a former inmate named Michael Singleton was trying to find her. She was, admittedly, unsettled. “He contacted Carmen Winslow of the Montana Standard … and he called my mother,” she says. “And then through Amazon I was getting messages that an agent was looking for me and a manager. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on.”
It turns out Singleton had been a student of Joki’s and his experience in the theater program had made an impression. A decade before the book came out, Singleton had befriended a down-and-out actor named Joe Manganiello. Manganiello would later go on to play Alcide the werewolf in “True Blood” and star in Magic Mike, but at the time he was dealing with alcoholism. Singleton, having battled his own demons, told Manganiello about how Joki had been an inspiration. When Juilliard to Jail came out, Singleton showed it to Manganiello, who, according to Joki, bought the film options. It’s unclear yet what will come of it, but it’s an exciting development for Joki.
Prison Boxing was staged in October last year under the direction of Joshua Kelly, who has since left the state to pursue a master’s in directing. This time, Linda Grinde is working with Joki. Grinde’s worked on several one-woman shows including Julie Cajune’s Belief, which was performed last year at the Bigfork Center for Performing Arts.
“I still think theater is mainly a flashlight and an actor, when it comes down to really good storytelling,” Grinde says.
After its two nights in Missoula, Joki and Grinde will take Prison Boxing to LA, where it will be staged at the Skylight Theatre by the Actors’ Gang, Tim Robbins’ company.
Grinde has helped Joki reorganize the piece, partly by helping her focus on one big question: What drew her to work in the prisons? It’s not an easy answer. Joki still has dreams from the intense experience—ones where she’s attacked or where she has accidentally murdered someone. But she knows why she’d do it all over again. “It’s about redemption,” Joki says. “It’s my feeling that people can be redeemed. My question for the inmates was, ‘Can you do something with your life even if you never get out?’ And I think you can.”
Prison Boxing shows at the Crystal Theatre Fri., May 2, at 8:30 PM and Sat., May 3, at 6:30 and 9:30 PM. $10/$5 student rush.