“We have a humanitarian crisis in prison that will blow up in our faces,” says André De Shields, speaking sonorously and looking grave in a clerical collar and a salt-and-pepper beard, as the character in Shakira Senghor’s play A Father’s Sorrow. It is one of the 15 new plays in “COVID and Incarceration,” a special edition this week of the 24 Hour Plays’ online Viral Monologues.
The collection of online video monologues is in some ways extraordinary, profound, demonstrating the power of theater in times of crisis. But it is also challenging, tricky and ultimately overwhelming — frankly, a struggle to get through.
The issue at the heart of these monologues could not be more timely or urgent. The Bureau of Prisons has reported that at least 1,900 federal inmates and 300 staff have been infected with the coronavirus — and, as with all such statistics, these are likely an underestimate. “Shelter in place, stay safe at home: That means something different in here,” says Ato Blankson-Wood, performing as inmate Yusuf Qualls in another play in the series, Lemon Anderson’s Elder’s Sun. “Every man in this wing is scared for his life.” Yet little is being done to save these lives, say advocates, who are pushing for such actions as Congressional passage of The Emergency Community Supervision Act (S 3579 and HR 6400), which was introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and would require the Bureau of Prisons to transfer vulnerable inmates immediately to home confinement or other community supervision outside of prison.
Each of the plays in “COVID and Incarceration” was created after each playwright talked with an individual inmate, advocate, or family member, in collaboration with some half dozen advocacy organizations.
Some turn out to be exceptional, moving works of theater. In June, by Lynn Nottage, Rebecca Naomi Jones portrays a woman who is planning a 45th birthday party for her sister June. “We’re gonna release balloons in her honor. Blue and yellow. I know we’re not supposed to, but who cares, we’re all gonna gather in the park, even though it’s raining.” It soon sinks in that the birthday party is in June’s honor and in her absence, not because she is incarcerated, but because she died the week before in prison from COVID-19. “I figured she’d hold on until her birthday at least. She was tiny, but she was a fighter.”
Some of the offerings are charming. In Como se dice, Break Legs? by Tony Meneses (one of two plays in Spanish with English subtitles), Alex Hernandez portrays a recently released inmate who is dressed in a makeshift costume as Olaf from Frozen, to try to entertain his young daughter, and console her for the cancellation of the school play she was going to be in. But none of the plays is without a point. The father also apologizes to her for being so busy “helping those who are still inside. But they’re my family too. Do you understand?”
A paraplegic prisoner who’s tested positive for the coronavirus, a transgender inmate whom the authorities have forbidden to tell her story, the wife of an immigrant detainee – they each get a voice.
De Shields’ performance in A Father’s Sorrow is mesmerizing, all the more so because his character is based on playwright Senghor’s conversations with a man named Elder Qualls, who has a compelling true story of ongoing injustice to tell.
In the information linked to the Instagram video, Elder Qualls is described as an advocate, re-entry specialist and community leader, but what he is mostly is a father. His son was given a sentence of life without parole at the age of 16. The Supreme Court subsequently barred the mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to life without parole, in a 2012 decision, recognizing children’s capacity for change.
Yet Yusef Qualls is among 200 “Juvenile Lifers” in Michigan alone still awaiting re-sentencing hearings. “Yusef made choices when he was a kid that left the family devastated,” De Shields as Elder Qualls says. But he’s now 41, stuck in a prison system where “what you have done becomes who you are. But Yusef is much more….You can make the choice to see him as the man he is today.”
Below the video of De Shields on the 24 Hour Plays website (as with all the videos in this special edition) is a button that says “Take Action.” Press on it and you’re taken to a page in the website Now Hear Us, created in collaboration with a half dozen advocacy organizations (such as the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and The RAPP Campaign, Releasing Aging People in Prison) where you’re asked to “Please demand that AG Dana Nessel and Governor Gretchen instruct prosecutors to re-sentence these men and women before these unconstitutional sentences become death sentences” and then provided a further link to sign a letter.
What, you might be asking, does this have to do with COVID-19? That’s the tricky part. “COVID and Incarceration” implicitly acknowledges the difficulty in isolating the issues connected to the pandemic from the larger, complex, interwoven issues of the prison system in America.
A Father’s Sorrow is 14 ½ minutes long – probably three times the length of the average Viral Monologue in previous editions – and, while there is much wisdom and sorrow in what the character says, there is little here about COVID-19.
And, remember, it’s just one of 15 monologues, more than two hours worth of stories about the prison system. Viewers may feel so bombarded that they should be forgiven if they miss the connection between the characters portrayed by Ato Blankson-Wood and André De Shields – Elder Qualls and Yusef Qualls are father and son. A Father’s Sorrow and Elder’s Sun are almost long enough together to stand on their own as a work of theater.
Since 1995, the theater company 24 Hour Plays has lived up to its name. For its 19th annual Broadway Gala last year, for example, six new plays were written from scratch and rehearsed in 24 hours, and performed for one night only. The company’s producers take pride in having responded throughout the years to what’s happening in the world, whether 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy or the 2016 election, as producer Coleman Ray Clark said to me last month when I first wrote about Viral Monologues, which since its launch on March 17 has been their near-weekly online response to the closing of physical theaters.
Their process has worked for them for a quarter of a century, but doesn’t work as well when translated from an annual stage show into a weekly series online, at least not for me. As I’ve pointed out in reviews of other recent shows that fit into the category of what I’ve come to call Netathons, the urge to create a big collective event has become problematic, and not just because of the grating technical limitations of the medium – in the case of Instagram, the claustrophobic screen, the poor audio and lack of closed captioning. We’re conditioned to expect an evening of scripted theater to tell a story with something close to a beginning, middle and end. The very effort at making these shows into huge, disparate and inclusive events undermines the coherence of the storytelling.
The pandemic is not like most crises of the past – 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy. It’s not a single moment from which we then have to recover. It’s the new norm to which we must adjust. It calls for a different kind of theater. The Netathons are starting to wear me out.
By tackling such a pressing issue, and pairing it with “Take Action” follow-ups, “COVID and Incarceration” largely sidesteps the trap into which the previous editions of Viral Monologues have fallen. Still, it feels telling to look at the stats for this edition (Round Eight) on the company’s Instagram page, and realize that the first two monologues were by far the most watched.