In 2005, activist and award-winning playwright Julia Steele Allen was volunteering in the Bay area for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, when she met and befriended Sara (Mariposa) Fonseca, who was serving a 12-year sentence.
“I was originally from New York City and I moved back in 2008, but we stayed in touch through letters,” Allen says. “We had regular contact and built on the friendship we had already started.”
Then in 2012, Fonseca was found in possession of tweezers—considered a class-A weapon at the prison—and was locked in the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU) for a period of 15 months. Over that time, the two continued to exchange letters and saw their bond grow.
Through those letters, Fonseca painted a horrid picture that revealed both the devastating effects of long-term isolated confinement, and, what she defined as “the magic that comes with the struggle to keep your spirit alive.”
It’s that experience that led to Fonseca and Allen co-writing Mariposa & the Saint: From Solitary Confinement, A Play Through Letters, a 45-minute play that brings to life Fonseca’s experiences in the SHU.
“We talked initially about how we were going to make this compelling—she’s in a box by herself, and we wanted some levity—but we knew we had to mix the realness of the situation with her struggle. That became a guiding force that we engineered everything around,” Allen says. “There are a lot of surprises. A lot of beauty.”
The genesis of Fonseca telling her story through theatrical form began when she asked Allen to send some song lyrics and poetry to keep her mind occupied in solitary, and Allen suggested they work on creating something artistic together.
“She was an amazing writer but had never seen a play before,” Allen says. “I sent her some plays to read and we discussed some concepts—symbolism, the fourth wall, etc.— and she began to picture it and folded herself into the play itself.”
The story started to take shape, including the addition of three different memory sequences that detail Fonseca’s life before the SHU—as a teenager, when first arrested, and surviving in general population.
“You learn a lot more about her personal story, who she is and the circumstances and conditions she is suffering under,” Allen says. “The entire text of the play is taken from the letters—every word. She’s an incredible creative writer—visceral, with striking metaphors and a bold very direct writing style that lent itself very easily to performance.”
Allen’s role in the collaboration was in shaping the script and dialogue and keeping Fonseca up on any changes and updates. It took three years to complete.
“I would relay the information as best I could, but mail takes at least a month to get in or out of there. I tried to make it as authentically collaborative as possible,” she says. “We added a director and choreographer and the elements of staging have been more collaborative beyond even myself.”
The play was finished in 2014, and Allen took on the role of Mariposa herself.
“Because I know her, my method for being her was to take a step back and realize it’s not her but a character based on her,” she says. “It’s her words but I had to let it become a character in its own right. The character has become so clear to me, I can step into that at any time. A lot of times we perform in non-traditional spaces, so there’s no luxury of a green room, and I’m all wedged in this small hallway, and I have to be able to jump into character immediately and take her shape and get to the intensity of what’s going on.”
Allen notes the finished product represents solitary confinement as a particularly egregious failure on the part of the prison system and it’s her hope that the play will open the eyes of how inhumane the system is.
Over the last year, she’s performed around the country trying to bring attention to this important story. To date, she’s visited eight states with active campaigns and pending legislation against the torture of solitary confinement.
Mariposa & The Saint
One performance only:
June 24, 2016
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
1313 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20005
Details and tickets
On June 24, the Arcturus Theater Company will host Mariposa & the Saint for a one-night performance at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church beginning at 7 p.m. The play is directed by Noelle Ghoussaini and features Javier Gaston-Greenberg as a corrections officer.
After the play is done, there will be a 45-minute panel discussion with a group including Roach Brown, a prison reform advocate. It’s important, Allen shares, to ground the play locally and have someone who can speak about their own experiences. She’s also proud to be performing in D.C., where so many are fighting for the injustice of solitary confinement.
“At every performance we offer the audience the chance to write her on pre-addressed postcards so we can give her feedback, so she’s getting letters from strangers every day,” Allen says. “They are amazed they can speak to her directly. People are so affected by this play. Something about this is reaching people.”