Theatre Program for Inmates Gets Presidential Award

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A Southern California group has just received the nation's highest honor for after-school arts and humanities programs. The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company creates plays in unusual places.

Improv actors: What do you think about this weather? Taxi, get in!

Kitty Felde: The improv begins with an audience suggestion: a taxi on a snowy day in Pittsburgh.

Improv actor 1: So where to, buddy?
Improv actor 2: Uh, city of Compton!
Improv actor 1: Compton, all right. Pittsburgh, Culver City, Compton. (laughs)

Felde: Today, the actors with the Unusual Suspects Theatre Company are performing just a few blocks away from their Culver City home in the lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The comedy is a warmup for a photo session with top arts officials. But most days, the Unusual Suspects write plays with kids in foster group homes, or in one of L.A. County's juvenile detention camps. This year, they took their act to the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, the first time the theater group's worked with young adults in state prison.

Bernie Warner: What it's meant for them is I think, you know, a tremendous amount of hope, self-confidence, just a sense of normalization that I think just is very helpful for youth who've been locked up for in some cases, for four or five years, and then their ability to have a more productive life in the community.

Felde: That's Bernie Warner, California's Chief Deputy Secretary for Juvenile Justice. Warner says it wasn't hard to get the inmates interested in the theater.

Warner: There's a lot of, too much idle time unfortunately, and many youth, while they were perhaps initially reluctant, not being aware of what it was about, eventually we had a long list of people raising their hands and wanting to be part of it.

Felde: The Unusual Suspects Theatre Company formed after the urban unrest of 1992. It's grown from a couple of workshops to a program that each year serves more than 300 teens. This month, First Lady Laura Bush awarded the group her "Coming Up Taller" award at a ceremony in Washington. One of those on hand to accept was a young man named Jose Ramirez. He says the White House looks just like it does on TV.

Jose Ramirez: The furniture, everything, real expensive. You know, go to the bathroom, you see "the White House" printed all over there. So it's like, it was fascinating just being there with all kind of people from different states, who were all great.
Felde: And what was it like meeting the First Lady?
Ramirez: Oh, it was awesome. It was just basically "God bless you, nice to meet you" and click, click, click, shots, and here we go again, accept an award and back to L.A.

Felde: In 2005, Ramirez was incarcerated at Camp Gonzalez – or "Camp G" as he calls it. Sally Fairman, the Executive Director for The Unusual Suspects, says she's struck by Jose's resiliency.

Sally Fairman: Jose's house burned down when he was ten years old. His mother died in the fire, and from there he was in Compton. He ended up getting in a lot of trouble, he was an orphan and really, you know, had no guidance.

Felde: At Camp G, Ramirez was introduced to The Unusual Suspects and jumped right in.

Ramirez: I never ever thought it was hokey because when I was a young kid, I always looked at actors like, "Whoa, I wanna be just like them. I wanna grow up and make a movie or grow up and do a TV show, and everything like that. So it was like whoa, this is what I always wanted in my life, so why not? Why not just give it all I've got?

Felde: Today, Jose Ramirez has a job and he's in school, training to be a movie grip or maybe a costume designer. But his face lights up when he describes what it feels like to be on stage, performing.

Ramirez: It was an experience that I can't really explain, it's so great. And it's kind of just like, when you breathe in, you feel it, it's like so hard, like ohh!

Felde: The Unusual Suspects are always looking for theater and film professionals who want to volunteer. Their website is theunusualsuspects.org.