Solidarity over Solitary in Sarah Shourd’s The Box
Friday night, July 8, offered scenes of bodies in various states of restricted motion.
The large opening night crowd queuing up for The Box, a new play by journalist-activist Sarah Shourd, formed a line that ran down the outside steps at Z Space and onto the sidewalk.
Directly across Florida Street a small cluster of tents formed familiar accommodations for a few of San Francisco’s thousands of homeless citizens.
Inside the lobby, meanwhile, maybe a hundred people milled around a bar and a couple of information tables beneath a projection on the far wall.
The silent video appeared to be surveillance footage of a man pacing the perimeter of a narrow concrete hall or atrium—a prisoner counting down his allotted exercise in what seemed to be passing for the prison yard.
Like the homeless individuals outside the theater, it was easy to multiply the man in the video by thousands, summoning a mental picture of the country’s staggering prison population (by far the largest in the world), and in particular those eighty to one hundred thousand held in isolation.
The latter will be the subjects of tonight’s urgent and humane new drama. But if the isolated prisoner on the lobby wall serves as an intentional juxtaposition to the free-moving theatergoers nearby, the deeply marginalized people in the tents outside become another, albeit unintentionally. It was hard not to take the memory of both into the theater as, moving from the lobby into the house, we encounter more variously circumscribed lives—jarring figures in a panorama of socially sanctioned cruelty that will haunt the stage for the next two hours.
Most strikingly, five men stand in a two-tiered tower of six discrete boxes that looms over the stage. (The center cell on the bottom is conspicuously empty at the outset.) This imposing, semi-mobile scaffolding (the slick work of scenic designer Sean Riley) holds the prisoners and their meager furnishings, while outlining a set of imaginary doors and walls.
Meanwhile, a young woman (played by Gabby Battista) stands near the lip of the stage fixed in a state of nervous contemplation. A uniformed guard passes by her as he patrols a walkway ringing the large stage. The men in the see-through cells pace, try to sleep, make idiosyncratic gestures, twitch, shout or scream. The din in the theater is constant and chaotic.
From this ordered chaos, a chaos of order, with its restricted movement and oppressive atmosphere, a narrative emerges that brings scope and definition to the lives within, while confronting its characters, and us, with questions, challenges and alternatives.
Helmed by Los Angeles–based Cornerstone Theater’s Michael John Garcés, and rooted in Shourd’s extensive correspondence with U.S. prisoners in solitary as well as her own visceral understanding as a one-time political captive of the Iranian government, The Box proves a well-acted and impressively designed production that channels all the fury and turmoil of its institutional setting into a deeply tender yet clear-eyed portrait of resilience. Meanwhile, mirroring a broader social callousness and indifference that amounts to a terrible complicity, The Box signals a persuasive call to action.
In defiance of mass incarceration’s mad institutional and political logic, The Box asserts both the humanity and agency of its subjects—many of them serious criminals, many simply mentally ill—and decries their extra-judicial removal one step further from society, into devastating psychological torment, by the routine punishment and practice known as solitary confinement. Without apologizing for the past actions of her deeply flawed characters, Shourd makes clear that their debasement indicts an entire system of coercive authority whose own egregious flaws go largely unanswered.
Significantly, Riley’s set blends a sense of claustrophobic stasis with a porousness and fluidity that speak to undeniable connections, resonances, and communication at even the outer limits of internal exile. This central theme in Shourd’s play finds further echoes in the simple overlapping movements that pass among the characters in Stacey Printz’s graceful gestural choreography, or in the psychological close-ups and interior landscapes of projection designer Tom Ontiveros’s gorgeous video backdrop.
The frayed but still vital social bonds maintained among the prisoners contribute to making a collection of extremely alienated individuals into a kind of uneasy family and, ultimately, into a political force. Significantly, the unofficial leader of the cellblock, Ray De Vaul (movingly embodied by the fine veteran Bay Area actor Steven Anthony Jones), has not only been in the longest but, as a Black Panther, sustains himself by identifying with a larger political philosophy and movement.
Enduring his nineteenth year of solitary, Ray acts as the generous and stoic paterfamilias to the other men in his vicinity, with whom he communicates by shouting or passing notes. It’s Ray who first reaches out to the vulnerable new arrival, marched into the empty bottom cell by the guards (Michael J. Asberry and Valerie Weak), a keyed up and frightened young man named Rocky (Chris Herbie Holland in an energetic and heartbreaking performance).
Among the more prominent subplots is the fragile and telling relationship between inmate Victor Santiago (a powerful and mercurial Carlos Aguirre) and his daughter Olivia (Battista, delivering a warm and well-measured performance as a devoted yet conflicted daddy’s girl), whom he tries to impress with fatherly authority despite a crushing distance that leaves him feeling insecure and inadequate.
There is also the slow-emerging story of Jake Juchau (a fine, coolly eloquent Clive Worsley), an aging white supremacist with growing doubts about his misspent youth. Jake’s maturation develops into a “prisoner class” consciousness that has implications for the entire cellblock, and his transformation also finds subtle coloring in a short but suggestive dialogue, through prison glass, with an old flame, now a journalist with access to the broader public.
(At this point, the plot recalls the recent hunger strike by California prisoners protesting similar conditions—a widespread coordinated action that made international news.)
The two other prisoners are Carlos Aviles (the capable Manuel Fernandez), a loquacious wannabe bad guy; and a desperately unhinged man nicknamed Looney Tunes (brought to life in an intense and wrenching performance by a remarkable J Jha).
Shourd takes time and care with the culture of the prison; not merely its imposed structure but the interior, organic rituals and traditions that grow up among the inmates themselves, such as the sharing of gift bags with new arrivals, the passing of hand-written messages along a makeshift “line,” or the invention of any number of tools and articles designed to gain a modicum of comfort (something the character of Victor excels at in the manner of a born artisan-engineer).
Even as inmates bicker with or threaten one another, this common culture of the cellblock lives in the unoccupied spaces within an otherwise dehumanizing institutional structure, subverting it to a certain degree by asserting a small, circumscribed zone of autonomy and fraternity.
This zone makes possible, if not inevitable, the formation of something more, a political solidarity that transcends the racism and fear otherwise dividing the prisoners. And that solidarity again strikes an intentional contrast with a larger social alienation—glaringly obvious amid the racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia of the present demagogic moment—in comparison with which solitary confinement might be said to be only an especially virulent extreme.
The Box: A Play About Solitary Confinement runs July 6–30 at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco.