By Darlene Donloe
Richard Loya vividly remembers his first night in prison. He was 16. He had been tried as an adult and sentenced to decades in prison.
“I just remember being afraid,” Loya said. “I was still very much shocked. I can’t describe the feeling. My thoughts were like, ‘My life is over.’ What have I done? I was so afraid. They kept me on suicide watch. I was tried as an adult. I got 27 years to life plus five years. I had to do the five years first. I did 30.”
Loya, a first-generation, Mexican-American, was born in East Los Angeles, but raised in South Los Angeles. He is the second son of four siblings, born to immigrant parents.
It was in prison there where Loya learned of the Arts in Corrections. In 2017, he was found suitable by the Board of Prison Terms and was released later that year. Today, he holds the position of one of the program managers of the Prison Project.
Loya’s story is just one of the horrific, gut-wrenching, and emotional tales told in the groundbreaking production, “(Im)migrants of the State,” by Jeremie Loncka, Loya, and members of The Actors’ Gang Alumni Advocacy Project.
The show, co-directed by Loncka and Loya, is created by and based on the real-life experiences of formerly incarcerated actors.
The Actors’ Gang, led by Artistic Director Tim Robbins, has been bringing theater into the California correctional system since 2006.
For 17 years, the teaching artists of the theater’s Prison Project have been creating transformational opportunities for incarcerated men and women.
After a successful, sold-out, extended run of “(Im)migrants of the State” in early 2023, the 90-minute play returns to The Actors’ Gang in a limited run for six performances, Jan. 19-28.
“(Im)migrants of the State” weaves together self-reflection and humor, through authentic voices on their journey toward redemption and healing.
The show is created and performed by an ensemble of Prison Project alumni with more than 240 years of combined incarceration, telling powerful, inspirational stories that speak to anyone who has ever lost hope or lived their life in fear and regret.
Every performance culminates in a moment called Red Hot Sharing, which allows participants the opportunity to share and release anything that could hinder them from doing the work while providing ensemble members the space to check with themselves emotionally.
I recently spoke to Loncka (JL) and Loya (RL) about the upcoming show.
DD: Describe the show.
RL: There are 13 formerly incarcerated human beings who learned a style of theater since coming home. The name is controversial. Most of us in the cast are Mexican. Our parents are immigrants. Inside they move you from prison to prison. It happens all the time. Sometimes the facility you’re in gets over-populated. We have no choice. Now, sometimes we do ask for transfers as we lower our points.
DD: What are points?
RL: There are four levels. You want to work down to level two because it’s more laid back, more are going home. You lower your points by behavior, no write-ups. It’s the story of 13 people, telling one story. We talk about how we were brought up, the low incomes. I am part of the 13. I was a lifer. Inside I met Jeremie. He came into the prison I was in. He taught us the style of theater. Now, I am co-program manager of the program. We are in 14 prisons.
RL: We had no arts in South Central where I grew up. I played at the park and the YMCA. There are no arts. No history of me with arts. Being incarcerated, I had disconnected from my humanity. In the class, they were there for seven days straight. By the third day, I started to feel something. I started to reconnect with the emotions that I had put away. You can’t show emotions. You can’t be sad or show weakness. You have to become this other person to survive in prison. We no longer live, we survive. I have since been reconnected with my emotions.
DD: Why do we need to hear from the formerly incarcerated?
JL: For a long time the doors were closed. The three strikes law was introduced. It put people away for a very long time. Good people who made a bad choice. Guys are in there for petty crimes and they are doing time — doing more than some people who did serious crimes.
RL: We are hungry and eager and want to get our life started. We have a lot to offer. I grew up with Blacks. They were my friends. I didn’t allow myself to become racist. You have to separate yourself from having Black friends. In the class, it forces us to work together. We create plays inside. You have to work with Blacks and whites, Islanders and South Americans. You build a community inside. When we come home, we bring it with us. We have Blacks, Mexicans, whites, Asians and women.
Before putting the show together, we didn’t see a lot of color in the audience. We pulled in people of color.
DD: Jeremie, what is your interest in working inside prisons?
JL: I started going into prisons the same year I joined Actors’ Gang. I got cast in a show. At the time, I was in the throes of launching this program. I don’t know anyone immediately impacted by prison. But the humanity I found in the room, it kept me coming back. The style I teach, I love. It’s physical ensemble theater.
DD: What is the audience supposed to get out of this show?
RL: In the beginning, we shared our stories and told our truths. Ultimately, we decided to let them decide what they take out of it. I’ve been home for six years. I’m off parole. When I first came home, my parole officer said, ‘Do not ask me for an early release?’ I had a seven-year life parole. At three and a half years my parole officer said, ‘We’ve been ordered to release you off parole.’ It was the work of going inside with Jeremie and the 17 others. Now, I go back inside and teach.
DD: What is it like going back inside to teach?
RL: I went back into High Desert State Prison to teach. It was in October of 2018. My knees were shaking. I was short of breath. The moment I walked on the grounds, the sound of the gate, the smell — it brought me back. It was traumatic.
DD: What is the biggest misconception people have about people who have been incarcerated?
JL: What I see and experience is an immediate judgment and chalking them up as bad folks based on one decision they made in their life.
RL: Some say, ‘They will never learn.’ It’s that thing of … they belong there [prison]. They shouldn’t get a second chance. They will use you. They will manipulate you.
When I first came home, I applied for a job at Target. There was the question about being incarcerated. I was in a transition home. I was honest. I will never forget them saying, ‘Will you violate again to go back.’ They don’t think you’ll really change.
‘(Im)migrants of the State,’ The Actors’ Gang Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, Jan. 19-28, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.; 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25-$34.99. 310-838-4264 or at www.theactorsgang.com.
“The Q&A” is a feature of Wave Newspapers asking provocative or engaging questions of some of L.A.’s newsmakers or celebrities.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.