Solitary Confinement Play 'The Box' Thinks Outside the Box...For a Bit

Sarah Shourd’s The Box is an unrelenting take on solitary confinement. The drama, currently playing at Z Space in San Francisco's Mission District, is an odd mélange of theatrical styles: political exposé, prison melodrama, avant-garde sound poem, muckraking journalism, and, strangest of all, a mismatched buddy tale between a Black Panther, a Neo Nazi, and a gentle, artistic Latino inmate accused of murder.

It’s as if the play is locked in an aesthetic and political battle over how best to depict the brutalizing nature of incarceration. You can feel that Shourd, a journalist and political activist as well as a playwright, believes that the choices she makes matter, and that the consequences are great. In many ways, she is bringing the sensibility of the journalist to the theater, and with it a sense of urgency missing from many prison dramas.

Shourd is somewhat famous for accidentally crossing the Iranian border while hiking with two friends in Kurd-controlled Northern Iraq in 2009. Iranian  guards captured the befuddled trio -- shocked that they were in Iran -- and all of sudden they found themselves accused of being CIA spies. Shourd spent 410 days in jail as a political prisoner, much of it in solitary confinement. So she knows what can happen to a mind under these conditions, and the play is powerful when it sticks to the experiential nature of minute-by-minute prison life.

When you walk into the cavernous auditorium at Z Space  -- having already heard the unsettling screams coming from the stage  from the lobby -- you're confronted with a wall of stacked cells, three on top and three on the bottom. Strange, violent, and random industrial sounds pierce through the chorus of yelling inmates. Instead of a dead gray wall, the background is a kaleidoscope of distorted images and shapes. As with the worst nightmares, every once in a while a clear image will break through the generalized sense of dread.

Sean Riley’s set, Tom Ontiveros’s projections, and Jon Bernson's sound are, as a unit, an aggressive, disorienting, and seemingly apt depiction of the psychic dislocation of solitary confinement. “Immersive” has replaced “cutting edge” as the go-to phrase of experimental theater, catnip for funders and the public alike. But here, without taking the audience on a field trip or changing the orientation of the stage, the designers have placed us in the vortex of what it must feel like to live in a cage, alone and untouched.

The beginning of The Box is blessedly free of explanation. There is no set up and no world-building -- just the actions of prison life. One prisoner, Pintu Nath (in a crazed, committed performance by J Jha), seems caught in an unending psychic breakdown, compulsively cleaning his toilet with a toothbrush; another, Rocky Ashburryscreams his way onto the stage and hunches in his cell, more scared animal than human being; while a third, Carlos Aviles, is taunting and cruel, shouting obscene insults at whomever seems weakest in the moment. I could have watched that for hours.

But then the characters start to tell us about their lives in a series of soliloquies -- “The cops regard us as wild animals;” “They put us here to break us down;" “There are no windows in the cells;” “Life here ain’t much,” -- as if we couldn’t intuit that and so much more simply by watching. Shourd-the-dutiful-journalist undermines Shourd-the-dramatist with some truly mind-numbing clichés.

Yet, for most of the first act, Shourd lets the simplicity of everyday events dominate. We watch the prisoners make it through the day, play jokes, write, exercise, read -- all sorts of things with no apparent narrative end. And in one of those beautiful paradoxes of the stage, the less we know, the more dramatic and terrifying the scenario becomes.

There are lapses here and there -- needless backstories and more journalistic underscoring of the obvious. But mostly the show is about what it's like to be alone, and how the prison system uses isolation as a form of torture. Watch that happen, and you start to feel a moral obligation to protect those we punish, even the most criminal of them. And it’s at the end of the first act, during the intermission, where The Box is at its most radical and politically potent.

Without losing all of what she accomplishes in the first act, Shourd tames her vision of justice considerably. The second act focuses in on three prisoners -- Black Panther Ray De Vaul, Neo-Nazi Jake Juchau, and the sensitive and self-defeating Victor Santiago -- as they shed their racial and tribal allegiances to become hunger striking, prison activists. In rather unconvincing and melodramatic fashion, Ray and Jake learn to care and love each other.

I’ve nothing against love, or Neo Nazis going lefty-soft. But to hear Juchau say that he’s “grown a little” and that “our multiracial coalition is using peaceful resistance” is to be subjected to the worst kind of liberal fantasy -- one that equates political change with personal growth. Shourd's first act knows better. The personal is not political. We don’t need a mismatched buddy melodrama to understand injustice. In fact, it gets in our way.

Melodrama can be an effective political tool, but in the case of The Box it dulls our senses. In a recent feature on the play from KQED's The California Report, Shourd’s good intentions are obvious. She wants to explain, to be fair and avoid stereotypes. These are some of the best qualities of mainstream journalism, as well as of decent people. Yet when you see those concerns on stage, especially in relation to the chaos of the first act, they almost feel corrupt, both aesthetically and politically.

We don’t need art that explains the obvious and insists that we all become good liberals. We need art that is brutal and unrelenting. Let the Nazi be a Nazi. Let the murderer remain unrepentant. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve our humanity and sense of justice. Shourd’s first act makes that case, imperfectly, but with verve and real belief; her second erases her most radical insights in a wave of unbelievable good feeling.

The Box’ plays through July 30 at Z Space in San Francisco. For tickets and information please click here.