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Incarceration Plays

April 19, 2007

The San Francisco theatre scene has been awash with plays about imprisonment of late. From Campo Santo's A Place to Stand and 51802 by Erika Shuch Performance Project (both part of a year-long investigation into incarceration by Intersection for the Arts) to SF Playhouse's stellar production of Stephen Adly Guirgis' Jesus Hopped The A Train and the world premiere of Edmund White's Terre Haute at New Conservatory Theatre Center, local playhouses are jangling chains and rattling bars like never before.

Besides plays that deal directly with the prison experience, we are also seeing the theme handled tangentially by various companies. ACT and Berkeley Rep have joined the incarceration-heavy season with, respectively, After the War, which deals with the post-prison camp existence of San Francisco's Japanese residents in 1948, and The Blue Door, a play tinged with the African-American history of enslavement. And Jessica Heidt's recently-closed production of Chantal Bilodeau's Pleasure & Pain at the Magic Theatre included the spectacle of a character stalking about a cage to satisfy a young woman's titillating sexual fantasies.

What of all of this? The gamine Pleasure & Pain aside, I wonder if the jump in prison-themed theatre work is part of a general push to raise awareness about California's ailing prison system? Certainly, this seems to be the direct agenda of Intersection for the Arts. As Executive Director Deborah Cullinan puts it:

“By bringing together gifted artists, respected scholars, and significant activists, we are able to consider the impact and effects of imprisonment from different angles, through different mediums, and with different communities. We hope to illuminate the stories of those who are in prison, and challenge us all to recognize that incarceration is unfortunately fundamental to the fabric of contemporary Californian, and U.S. society and that cultural space is pivotal in this necessary dialogue.”

Never has there been a more crucial time to examine the state's prison system from the inside and out. California runs one of the largest -- if not the largest -- prison system in the Western world. It houses more prisoners than do the countries of France, Germany, the
Netherlands, and Singapore combined. California has spent $5.2 billion on new prisons since 1977, yet it still has the most overcrowded system in the United States.

In December last year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled a comprehensive prison reform proposal to confront California’s prison overcrowding crisis and reduce the high recidivism rate. According to a press release, his plan aimed to "add 16,238 beds in state correctional facilities, build 45,000 local jail beds, set aside $1 billion for 10,000 medical and mental health beds pursuant to the Receiver’s plans, enact Jessica’s Law, California’s new landmark initiative to protect children against sex offenders, create a sentencing commission, and realign resources to ensure the worst criminals are not a threat to public safety."

But it'll be a long time before California's prison system sees reform. Only yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about a Democratic backlash against corrections officials for building a new execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison without telling lawmakers and suggested they wouldn't spend money on a mismanaged prison system. The article talked about the state corrections department's poor track record of implementing inmate programs: a recent report by a prison watchdog agency said the state had wasted $1 billion on ineffective drug treatment services, and Schwarzenegger abandoned an attempt in 2004 to send parole violators to drug treatment or other training programs instead of prison in part because the administration had not trained parole agents on the policy changes or lined up enough facilities to accept parolees.

Unlike plays about gun reform or the war in Iraq, which mostly end up preaching to a choir of liberal-minded, anti-war, anti-gun playgoers, prison reform is not a cut-and-dry topic for most Bay Area theatre-goers. I think that's why each take on the theme, if not always successful, is so different and unique. The best productions might actually stand a chance of impacting audiences' lives and make us think about what might be done to improve the system in this state.

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