Ronnie Walker barely moves. He faces a corner of the prison yard, relaxed, swaying gently. When a fight breaks out, the correctional officers bark, “Yard down!” and then begin screaming at him. Why hasn’t he dropped to the ground as ordered?
Walker is a tall man with regal bearing, but he now looks around bewildered, as if waking from a dream. He whimpers softly that he didn’t mean to do anything wrong. By now, the C.O.s are dragging him to the prison psychiatrist.
Except this isn’t a real prison, and Walker isn’t an inmate — at least not anymore. He’s one of about 20 actors at dress rehearsal for the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s State of Incarceration, a drama examining life inside the California state penal system (now showing at RADAR L.A.). The LAPD’s actors aren’t the usual troupe of thespians: They live and work in Skid Row, and many spent the years other performers put in at drama school in penitentiaries or battling addiction. They’re also active collaborators in the work they perform. For Incarceration, directors John Malpede and Henriëtte Brouwers drew directly from memories of prison life the actors shared.
Before the dress rehearsal, at the Skid Row building where he lives, “Pretty Ronnie” (that’s Walker’s nickname) looked fresh in a long-sleeved Fila T-shirt, baggy jeans and a red “NY” cap. His fuzzy gray goatee was neatly trimmed, and his moniker seemed thoroughly fitting. But Walker easily admits that, not so long ago, he was “diabolically ugly.” When his former prison-mate (at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi) and fellow LAPD actor Kevin Michael Key overhears him he lets loose a gravelly hoot. “Prit-tay Ronnie!” he crows. “I seen ’im! It wasn’t nothin’ nice!”
A native of New York City, Walker spent 16 years in prisons in New York, Boston and Southern California, on varied drug sale, use and possession charges. In 2005, released in Los Angeles, he reconnected with Key, who was already free and involved with
Walker says he already understood that theater is the flip side of a life of crime. “This is so close to who I am,” Walker explains. “There are very few parts I haven’t played in real life.” Hustling forced him into one role after another. “You have to be the sentimental softhearted [guy], the emotional tough guy, the shoulder to cry on; you have to be them all. Starting to act was no problem — I’d just draw on all the experiences I had.”
During a stint in 1984 at Sing Sing, Walker joined an inmate theater group guided by a volunteer acting coach who, he says, taught him “a lot about facial expressions, how to convey them very well, you know? And about getting in touch with whatever character I’m playin,’ goin’ in depth to get the best out of it.
“She liked me in roles like, you know, an emperor,” Walker says. “Someone distinguished!” He puffs up to demonstrate on the Skid Row sidewalk.
During the development of Incarceration, Walker wasn’t aware that his recorded memories would end up onstage. “So I couldn’t try to sugarcoat it. I just gave it raw, the way it happened.” The prison yard scene came directly from his experience. Walker explains, “I was in a state of just total calm. I’d been in jail so long, done so much time, so I’d use this kind of mental escape from jail.” When “yard down” was called, he said he was “oblivious to it, and that was taken as a very, very serious violation.”
In the play, and in real life, the psychiatrist threatened Walker with mandatory medication. which Walker feared would cause him to backslide into addiction. “Once I realized how much trouble I was in, I switched into character mode,” Walker says. “I just explained that I really wasn’t crazy, that I had actually messed up,
and that I didn’t need to be medicated.”
LAPD co-director Brouwers says that the Walker she knows is “a totally reliable person. He always arrives at rehearsal on time; he says, ‘I am a professional.’ I think it’s very good for the others in the group.” And Walker clearly loves the compliments. “I should have a neck brace,” he says, “my head should be so swollen! But I think I’ve handled it fairly well.”
Most of the time, Walker is playing a role on a different kind of stage: the addict, five years in recovery this August, in the same transitional street-cleaning job he’s had for nearly three years. He says he rarely sleeps well, frustrated because he’s “stuck in just a bad situation.” LAPD is where he goes “to get out.”
He hopes, someday soon, he’ll get out permanently. “There’s a lotta things I’m gonna have to do to better myself,” he says. “There’s a niche out there somewhere for me; I just have to find it.”
State of Incarceration. RADAR L.A. Through Sat, June 18. 213-237-2800.
See a State of Incarceration video, Context Is Story, featuring Ronnie Walker and Kevin Michael Key, here.