The very transportable set for this touring production consists of a small enclosure of flimsy, fragile fabric cubes painted to look like stone blocks but really as insubstantial as little laundry hampers. They take on obdurate solidity, though, as Julia Steele Allen begins her formidable performance inside them of a woman in solitary confinement.
The prisoner’s name is Sara Fonseca, called Mariposa on account of her butterfly tattoo, a 33-year-old mother of two whom she has not seen in 12 years. Hers has been an unimaginably protracted confinement. As Allen tells her story—mostly in Mariposa’s own words, written in letters to Allen over the course of three years—we are confronted with a fact about our country that has to rank among its all-time greatest shames: Though the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture considers solitary confinement cruel and inhuman punishment if it goes on longer than 15 days, right now in this land of the free more than 80,000 people are in SHU (Security Housing Unit, aka “the hole”), and many of them, like Mariposa, have been there for years.
For 23 out of every 24 hours they are absolutely isolated, yet no judge sentenced them to serve even a minute of their prison time in solitary. There was no due process. There is now no right of appeal. They are there merely at the whim of wardens, who in the United States prison industrial complex wield a power to play state’s sadist that the Constitution ostensibly prohibits.
The theater project began when Allen met Mariposa while volunteering with a group advocating for women prisoners in California. Their relationship is as much a part of the play as is Mariposa’s ordeal (some of which is excruciating to hear, as when she tells of being repeatedly raped at age seven by her mother’s johns). At one point Mariposa says, “You are my soul. You are my best me.” And the bond of care and solidarity between them becomes our tether to Mariposa’s plight too. At another point the audience joins Allen in reading a poem that she wrote for and to Mariposa:
If only I could see you now
I would tell you
You have a place
It is with me
Allen’s performance was riveting. More than playing a character, she seemed to be channeling emotions and experience from within Mariposa’s world. And it became evident in a post-show discussion that she has been conscientious in keeping the coauthored work—credited equally to Sara Fonseca and herself—a real collaboration. This being the last performance of a year-long tour, Allen said she now will go back to visit Mariposa and consult her about what becomes of the project next.
Mariposa & the Saint was presented one night only by Arcturus Theater Company, whose artistic mission is to “prompt discussion on topics that do not come up naturally in everyday conversation,” in partnership with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Noelle Ghossaini directed, Michi Osato was stage manager and assistant director, and Javier Gaston-Greenberg performed in a nonspeaking role as a masked corrections officer (“C.O.”).
Mariposa & the Saint is wake-up theater, indict-the-conscience theater, and incite-to-action theater. It’s exactly the kind of theater the world needs more of.
Running Time: About 50 minutes, with no intermission.