Friday, April 8, 2016

Fly, Mariposa, fly!

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Lk 15:7

...At least, that’s what I think he said, the Nazarene, the one who had nowhere to lay his head and whose dined with outcasts... the one in whose name we righteous folk sentence sinners (today we call them offenders, inmates, and such) to decades-long, sometimes lifelong imprisonment and prolonged solitary confinement. But then again, we’re also told that his own family thought he was crazy. Anyway, I’m trying to figure out why, in our Christian country, we don’t give those who have broken the law a chance at Christian repentance. Lock them up and throw away the key, people say. Because we refuse to recognize their common humanity and cannot be bothered helping them put the pieces of their lives back together.

My observations are prompted by the one-woman play Mariposa & the Saint. I saw it last evening on Haverford College’s campus. Julia Steele Allen and inmate Sara Fonseca—a 33-year-old mother of two, nicknamed Mariposa because of her butterfly tattoo-- have crafted the text of the play together, basing it on excerpts from letters Mariposa has written to Julia over the years. The play writing has been done completely through correspondence as well. Mariposa has never been to rehearsals or performances of the piece that she’s co-written. She hasn’t even seen photos of her friend Julia in the title role. That’s because Mariposa has been confined to the Security Housing Unit (the SHU) of a California prison since their collaboration began three years ago.

   The 45-minute monlogue is nonlinear, alternating between the present time and flashbacks to various periods in Mariposa’s life. The staging is sparse. Piles of white and off-white fabric blocks are the only props, and Mariposa pushes them closer and closer together in the course of the play to depict the increasingly suffocating atmosphere of a solitary confinement cell. The action opens on a very animated Mariposa, dressed in a white prison outfit bearing with the upper-case letters: S, H, and U. Although she shares how much she misses her young son and daughter, we sense a strong life force within her, something that even the criminal (in)justice system cannot dampen. She recites the Native American tale of how Wit’-Tab-Bah the Robin got his red breast and whistles, imitating a robin’s song. However, we come to understand that Mariposa’s life has been as disjointed as the narrative... a child constantly moving from one location to another with her mother and repeatedly raped by her mother’s “tricks”... a young, single mother herself, evicted from the room where she was living with her baby ... a prisoner, separated from another inmate whom she had come to love as her wife. The monologue is punctuated by hand-clap commands from the C.O. (played by an actor in a nonspeaking role) and a couple of popular songs. Little by little, Mariposa grows lethargic, paranoid, agoraphobic. At the of the play, when she is just a month away from being released from the SHU, we learn that she has thrown a glass of cold water in the face of a male nurse, an act that earns her another four years –four years!—in solitary. Mariposa is serving the rest of her time in solitary in the prison's psychiatric section.

  The performance was followed by a 45-minute discussion led by Julia, as well as the play’s director, Noelle Ghoussaini, and members of Decarcerate PA and Reconstruction Inc. We discussed the inhumanity of solitary confinement, especially the lack of contact prisoners have with their own children, and we talked about how difficult it is for those released to find work. We ended the evening by signing petitions to our state representative and senator for reform of the PA prison system. And we were offered an addressed post card to send to Mariposa, who is  elated to receive these from so many persons around the country.

  You will fly again, Mariposa!

Another review of the play:

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