Visions and Voices event explores the intersection of theatre and social change

From their respective homes across the nation, activists and USC students came together Monday evening to perform “Pause,” an original and interactive play about restorative justice and the failures of the U.S. prison system.

The Visions and Voices event was a product of “Performing Policy: The Justice Project,” a theatre performance program that connects students from professor Brent Blair and Sol Price School of Public Policy doctoral candidate Jocelyn Poe’s classes with formerly incarcerated people.

Blair, who leads the program and is a professor of theatre practice, worked with Poe, who is also a Price faculty member, and Javier Stauring from Healing Dialogue and Action, an organization focused on restorative justice.

Unlike most Vision and Voices events, the play was presented on Zoom, instead of in a traditional theatre, which made for a memorable performance. Despite a few brief technical difficulties, the production proved to be a success with 190 people in attendance, learning that theatre and policy are in fact interconnected.

“I can’t see any of you, I’m trusting that you’re there,” Blair said. “I hope that you can trust that I’m here and that we’re together in the same space and heart.”

The play centers on Christian Branscombe and Tobias Tubbs, two individuals who were convicted of separate violent crimes and sent to the California State Prison in L.A. County. Branscombe was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole while Tubbs was given two life sentences. Both men have since been freed and perform as themselves in the play.

Students from Blair and Poe’s classes “Theatre in the Community” and “Topics in Public Policy and Urban Studies,” respectively, act in secondary roles as a prison guard, a game show host and reporters, among many other roles. All scenes were skillfully crafted to explore different aspects of restorative justice, a form of criminal justice that focuses on rehabilitation rather than retribution through communication between victim and offender, and the reality of the prison system.

“It’s a story about challenges in the prison industrial complex and a hope and a prayer and action for restorative justice solution,” Blair said. 

Poe said one goal of the play is to help people understand that “each day the decisions we make, the choices we have are all influenced by policy.” She further shared how “using theatre as a method to explore policy provides us a unique opportunity to understand how policy impacts lived experiences resulting in better policy.”

The scenes are primarily set in a prison art room, Bare Bones. Prison’s art rooms provide a special place for the incarcerated to heal through activities like painting, reading and writing, and both Branscombe and Tubbs were advocates for these spaces while serving their time.

“We’ve created a space for Christians, Muslims, … Black and white people,” Tubbs said in the play. “For everybody to come in here and to heal and to love one another. Now that’s the truth, that’s the truth that’s gonna set us free.”

Throughout the play, the scenes “paused” and videos with statistics and information on the U.S. prison system and restorative justice were shared.

“Restorative justice programs have been proven to reduce recidivism by nearly 50% over time,” a voiceover stated. “One program in Wisconsin showed significant declines in youth violent arrests, crime and recidivism. Five years after the program began, violent juvenile offenses decreased [by] almost 49% and overall juvenile arrest rates decreased almost 45%.”

The hard facts aimed to dismantle a common narrative that restorative justice programs are a waste of taxpayer dollars and generally unhelpful.

The play also reenacted the many times Branscombe and Tubbs were targeted by prison security guards who impeded on their art sessions, seemingly just to get a rise out of them.

“Alright, ladies, break it up,” said an officer played by Adam Torres, a sophomore majoring in theatre. “Pack up your stuff and get back to your cells.” 

Branscrombe replied, “Back to our cells? We have the room for a full two hours, we just got in here.” 

These scenes detailed the tribulations the duo faced as inmates, but also the power of restorative justice. 

“There’s only two entities — entities of light and entities of darkness,” Tubbs said of overcoming the hostile environment that was prison. “Torres, he’s given himself over to a mean and vindictive spirit, bro. Imma reject it every time with my heart and with my mind.” 

To these men, restorative justice is anything but useless. Rather, it is a resource that leads to their releases and rehabilitation.

“Art healing programs have miraculous results,” Tubbs said. “I wouldn’t have been looking at freedom in five months if it wasn’t for Bare Bones.”

After the play ended, an audience member, Dr. James Gilligan, made connections between what he saw in the play and his own research. Gilligan is a psychiatrist and author of a series of books entitled “Violence,” where he draws on 25 years of work in the U.S. prison system to describe the motivation behind violent behavior.

“If you really care about the victims of violence then you want programs like this because this is how you prevent them from becoming victims in the first place,” Gilligan said on Zoom after the play concluded.

In one particularly relevant scene, mass incarceration was compared to the current coronavirus pandemic, providing a lens into the complexity of the U.S. prison system.

“Imagine social distancing in a cell with another person for your whole life — maybe not another person if you’re in solitary,” Mikki Benjamin, a senior majoring in theatre, said in a scene. “Prison is like having COVID-19 all the time.”

The play reminded audience members that prisons are meant to be a place of rehabilitation and not serve as a purely punitive environment. Restorative justice has the power to heal both survivors of violent crimes and the perpetrators, if the U.S. prison system chooses to embrace it.

“Hurt people hurt people,” Branscombe said, “and healed people heal people brother.”