From the Left Side of the Balcony: Isolation of the Worst Kind
Sarah Shourd's "The Box" rips the use of solitary confinement.
Steven Anthony Jones has a lead role in "The Box."
Carla Hernandez Ramirez
Sarah Shourd was held in solidarity confinement for 410 days in Iran as one of the three American hikers. The experience nearly drove her insane.
"I fluctuated between rages where I beat at the walls of my cell until my knuckles were bloody," the Oakland resident told me in a recent interview. Depression set in. "I didn't want to move or eat for days at a time. When I realized I was slowly losing my mind, I developed a regime of exercise and study, activities I invented to fill the time."
Shourd has melded those experiences, along with months of intensive interviews with American victims of solitary, to write a play, The Box, which has its world premiere this month in San Francisco. The play delves into the minds of prisoners and guards to create a gripping portrait of modern prison life.
In 2009, Shourd, along with Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, were seized at Iran's border with northern Iraq, brought to Tehran, and held as political hostages on phony charges of being American spies. Shourd was released for medical reasons in 2010, and the two men got out a year later.
After her release and return to Oakland, Shourd thought she would never want to be by herself again. In reality, however, she wanted to be alone. "I wanted to crawl back into a hole. Physical touch made me want to jump. Eye contact made me really uncomfortable."
Shourd experienced exactly the same mental issues as American prisoners held in solitary confinement. She was able to overcome the problems by focusing her life on freeing her two fellow hikers. She appeared on Oprah and met with President Obama.
She said she survived "by pouring the pain into something much larger than myself."
Then, in 2011, thousands of California prisoners went on a hunger strike demanding an end to indefinite solitary confinement. She wanted to do something to help the strikers, and that inspired her to write the play.
The Box appears at a propitious moment, when growing numbers of conservatives and liberals are seeking prison reform, including limitations or abolition of administrative segregation, as solitary is often called.
Shourd interviewed more than 75 experts, family members, survivors, and prison officials, and eventually visited 12 prisoners in person. She drew upon their experiences to create composite characters that tell their stories during the 90-minute play. Shourd, an experienced freelance journalist, thought drama would be more powerful than a documentary.
"Fiction is a way to get at a universal truth through a lie, giving yourself the freedom as a writer to create characters that people can really crawl inside of," she said.
Steven Anthony Jones, a veteran ACT actor who is now artistic director at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, plays one of the lead characters, a former Black Panther named Ray De Vaul. The character is loosely based on the life of Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3, held in solitary for over 41 years at Louisiana's infamous Angola prison.
"I didn't know somebody could survive in solitary for that many years," Jones said. "I didn't know how abusive it was. These people aren't angels, but they are people."
Jones noted that it's not easy for a white woman to write about black prisoners. She had to struggle not to make the De Vaul character a "magical Negro," someone without faults who dispenses oracle-like advice to others.
Jones said, "I don't want to do Shawshank Redemption," the film in which the Morgan Freeman character portrays an all-knowing, good guy narrator. "In that movie, they were nice guys. In The Box, "we're not nice guys. Shourd doesn't sentimentalize."
To make sure her portrayals were accurate, Shourd sent copies of the play to all 12 prisoners interviewed to see if they wanted to be listed publicly as contributors to the play. Eleven of 12 prisoners agreed.
The Box uses soliloquies to explain the background of De Vaul, a Hispanic prisoner in conflict with his teenage daughter, and a white supremacist. Guards and other prisoners enter the isolation pod, bringing new stories and dramatic tension. The characters emerge as intensely human.
"The men in this play are not saints," said Shourd. "They are flawed, sometimes hilarious, sometimes unsettling, human beings."
I asked Jones if the play might help bring about prison reform. "We have a long way to go," in that regard, he said. But hopefully The Box will "broaden the number of people who oppose solitary confinement."
Previews for The Box begin July 6. The play runs through July 30 at the Z Space Theater, 450 Florida St., San Francisco, www.APlayCalledTheBox.com.
Summertime means jazz festival time. Next month, I'll bring you a firsthand report from the great Montreal Jazz Festival. In the meantime keep your eyes open for:
Stanford Jazz Festival, which features jazz concerts and workshops throughout the summer, presents the great vocalist and body percussionist Bobby McFerrin on Aug. 6. The phenomenal Oakland pianist Taylor Eigsti joins the performance. www.StanfordJazz.org/Stanford-Jazz-Festival-2016.
San Jose Jazz Festival (Aug. 12-14) includes New Orleans great Kermit Ruffins and the Cuban music of Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, among many others. www.SummerFest.SanJoseJazz.org.
Monterey Jazz Festival (Sept 16-18) has an all-star lineup: Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Branford Marsalis, and dozens more. www.MontereyJazzFestival.org.
Oakland journalist Reese Erlich writes this arts and culture column every month. Follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich, on Facebook (Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent) or contact him by email, ReeseErlich2@hotmail.com.
Editor's Note: This story appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.