Tonight and tomorrow night’s performances of Julia Steele Allen’s play, Mariposa & the Saint: From Solitary Confinement, A Play through Letters, begin the national tour of the one-act production. In the span of 45 minutes, we “travel with Mariposa over two and half years of her confinement in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of a California women’s prison, including into her memories and her imagination,” says Allen.
The story “reveals both the devastating effects of long-term isolated confinement, and, as [Mariposa] says: ‘the magic that comes with the struggle to keep your spirit alive.’” Mariposa & the Saint: From Solitary Confinement, A Play through Letters will be at St. Paul’s Theater (334 South 5th St.) September 17th and 18th at 7:00 pm. Both showings will be followed by a 45-minute dialogue about the detrimental effects of confinement.
Mariposa and Allen met in 2005 while Allen, an activist and community organizer for twenty years, was volunteering with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). When Allen moved away from California in 2008, she began to exchange letters with Mariposa, an art enthusiast. Allen learned of Mariposa’s sentence to solitary confinement in 2012 and suggested they work on a play together to keep her mind occupied during the two year isolation.
What began as a creative project to act as a distraction for Mariposa has become an organizing tool to engage audience members in a dialogue about the torturous effects of solitary confinement. “We didn’t talk about the reality of performing it until much later,” Allen says. She had mentioned the play to director Noelle Ghoussaini, who felt strongly that the play should be shared publicly, and encouraged Allen to move forward.
Ghoussaini directs the two-person play. Though at first hesitant to take on the role of Mariposa, Allen eventually agreed. “There seemed like real drawbacks to having me do it since it meant I wouldn’t be able to get as much distance and perspective in the development, but [Mariposa] felt strongly that I should do it; it is a lot about our relationship and wouldn’t make sense to have it be someone who was outside of that and didn’t know her. So I agreed.”
The second person is a corrections officer, played by Ray Huth. The effect of his non-speaking, movement-based role, is heightened by Huth’s masked face. According to Mariposa’s description, the corrections officer is “a representation of this faceless machine.”
The Security Housing Unit (SHU) serves as the setting for the play which is “the size of a large elevator. For the purposes of the play, she exits it often but the reality of the SHU is solitary confinement or “isolated confinement” (because sometimes they house more than one person in a SHU cell though it is the same size). It is punishment for people already incarcerated.”
Although it varies by state and prison, inmates are “generally confined to their cells 23 hours a day, with no access to the outside world: no phone calls, no educational or work programs, etc. People are generally sentenced to months but there are many who have been in the SHU for years and decades. People are given SHU terms for any number of disciplinary infractions, most of them minor such as talking back to a guard, offering another prisoner legal advice, giving yourself a tattoo, having additional property (extra postage stamps, etc). Designed to be punishment for people who were a violent threat to another prisoner or to a guard, it is now used in every state, for anything at all, with little to no oversight.”
Allen’s work as an artist has always contained a social or social justice aspect. “It is essentially what drives me in everything I do,” Steele explains. “This play though, is the first time I have been able to experiment with how we can use a piece of art as an organizing tool at a key strategic moment, without compromising the integrity of the art. I will be drawing powerful lessons from our journey this year that I hope to share with other artists, cultural workers and community organizers who are also searching this overlap.”
The play’s first performance was in December 2014 and every show since then has been followed by a 45-minute dialogue with the audience “where they take a real, concrete action step in support of a campaign to end long-term solitary confinement.” Beginning with these two shows at St. Paul’s Theater through June 2016, Ghoussaini and Allen will bring the play in eight states with active legislative and grassroots campaigns to limit or end solitary confinement.
Taking the play to states where there is already movement allows them to partner with groups that are currently working on this issue. “We will be bringing it to judges, lawyers, elected officials, religious congregations, college and university students as well as theater-going audiences. We hope to substantially support the growing movement to end solitary confinement in this country,” explains Allen.
Since Mariposa is still in isolation, the play continues to evolve. “The letter that opens the play changes to keep up with her thinking and condition. It is now from May 2015,” Allen shares. Mariposa and Steele began writing the play in 2012, when her expected release from solitary confinement was in 2014. However, Mariposa loses that date and the play has changed significantly as a result.
Mariposa & the Saint: From Solitary Confinement, A Play through Letters will be at St. Paul’s Theater (334 South 5th St.) September 17th and 18th at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $10-$20 on a sliding scale. No one will be turned away for lack of funds. Formerly incarcerated and members of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement may attend for free.