Social Change Through Activist Theater

The movement to end long-term solitary confinement is full of tireless, devoted activists whose passion and support, month after month, year after year, is inspiring. But while these efforts have certainly sparked improvements in some areas, still, for many of us involved in the fight, progress can seem frustratingly slow. We are talking about a human rights crisis of epic proportion: tens of thousands of people in agonizing, psychologically damaging conditions akin to torture – and with little to no demonstrated benefits. The facts are on our side, and the issue is one of immediate concern. So how has this practice been allowed to continue?

One reason for the lack of public outcry is that, for most Americans, solitary confinement remains unseen. Often called a prison within a prison, solitary confinement is removed from the public eye by its very definition, and those who are subjected to it are among the most marginalized and silenced in our society. Through public actions around the country, Together to End Solitary is trying to change that—but communicating the nightmarish reality of solitary confinement is not an easy task. That’s where art comes in.

Specifically, performance activism can help to demonstrate what facts and figures alone cannot. While free people can never truly understand the experience of long-term isolation, by engaging all the senses, theater can bring us one step closer to this goal. This month, artist Julia Steele Allen has been touring New York with performances of Mariposa and the Saint, a play she wrote in collaboration with solitary survivor Sara “Mariposa” Fonseca. The play is composed entirely from letters written by Ms. Fonseca during her fifteen months in solitary confinement, and provides a powerful look into life in isolation – as the New Yorker put it, giving the audience an “impossible proximity to a real person in what is, for many, an unreal situation.”

Mariposa, which debuted in New York City in December 2014 and is now touring nationally, is more than entertainment, and more than storytelling. Each performance is followed by a discussion and activist workshop, and the tour is strategically planned, targeting states with active legislation or statewide campaigns to end solitary confinement – New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado, and California.  The piece was originally performed in collaboration with the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, and the artist works with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and other organizations to make sure every performance has an impact.

Coming up, this July will be the world premiere of the highly anticipated play about solitary confinement, The Box. Writer Sarah Shourd spent more than a year in solitary confinement when she was held as a political hostage by the Iranian government in 2009-2010. Since her release, she has dedicated her life to ending solitary confinement in this country and, through a partnership with Solitary Watch, she interviewed dozens of people in isolation around the country before turning their stories into this play. The play draws on Shourd’s background in Theatre of the Oppressed, a method that uses theater to promote dialogue and social change, and highlights the amazing resilience of solitary survivors.

The Box is playing at Z Space in San Francisco starting July 8, and will run throughout the month of July. Like Mariposa, certain performances of The Box will include panel discussions about different aspects of mass incarceration to build support and promote action.

Meanwhile, a California-based artist has developed a solo performance called Solitary Man based on his visits and correspondence with prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU. The piece, by writer and performer Charlie Hinton, builds on the background of the historic hunger strikes at Pelican Bay and portrays two visits with a lifer in solitary confinement. Through the play, he hopes to add to the chorus of voices demanding an end to solitary confinement. “The world is such a cold and cruel place these days,” he says. “I want Solitary Man to add at least one drop of humanity.”

Performances like these can reach people on a deeper level than words alone—and the folks at NRCAT have made it easy to bring theater to your community.  Along with Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, NRCAT commissioned a script that can be used by anyone, anywhere. The show, called If the SHU fits: Voices from Solitary, features the real words from solitary survivors and family members and is easily adaptable to fit any venue, and any type of event. A toolkit provides all the resources necessary to put on the play and host a discussion about solitary confinement in any community.

These are just a few of the many artists who are using their creative talents to give voice to the voiceless in solitary confinement. The movement to end long-term isolation needs folks to spread facts and figures, do research and make appeals to rationality. But we also need artists like these to appeal to the public’s humanity, to reach us at our deepest core and to spark the cultural shift we need in order to make dramatic and lasting change.

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