In the play "The Box," a prisoner offers a soliloquy on why inmates end up in solitary confinement.
"We're the guys they don't know how to deal with. We comport ourselves with a little too much dignity. The guards hate that. They put us here to break us down. Guys come in acting tough, can't bear the pressure. Things get ugly, infractions pile up, which means more time in the hole."
"The Box," which opens in San Francisco July 8, starkly portrays the lives of inmates who have violent pasts but demand to be treated as human beings. The play is written by Sarah Shourd, one of the three hikers seized at the Iraq-Iran border and held in a Tehran prison. Shourd spent 410 days in solitary confinement. She was released from Iran in 2010, co-authored a book on her experiences and soon began work on the play.
Shourd spent several years researching the use of solitary in U.S. prisons, interviewing 75 prisoners, families and experts. She ultimately visited 12 prisoners in order to create the composite characters appearing in the play.
Shourd says her imprisonment in Iran sank her into a deep depression. Many inmates in U.S. prisons have similar experiences
"You have no privacy," said Shourd. "So you're under complete surveillance. That is a very unnatural state that human beings are not wired for. You can't remember what your mother looks like, what an apple smells like."
While Shourd experienced life in solitary, she does come from a white, middle-income background. She faced a challenge to write authentically about working-class people of color. Hollywood and Broadway have two stereotypes about black inmates: the intimidating thug and the all-wise, Yoda-like character. It was tricky writing the part of a former Black Panther, she said.
"There was a danger of him falling into stereotype or trope of the 'magical Negro,' " she said. "My blind spots, I think, were caught by others and pointed out to me."
Steven Anthony Jones, a veteran of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, portrays the former Black Panther. He was impressed by Shourd's playwriting debut.
"I found the character to be very authentic in terms of his age and his race, the two things I would be most familiar with," said Jones.
"The Box" uses soliloquies to explain conditions faced by black, white and Latino inmates. Guards and other prisoners enter the isolation pod, bringing new stories and dramatic tension.
Clive Worsley portrays Jake, a white supremacist who spent seven years in solitary for killing another inmate. He keeps himself isolated from the black and Latino inmates, but that changes when all the prisoners go on a statewide hunger strike as a protest against long-term solitary confinement.
His character "hasn't been engaging socially," said Worsley.
After a prisoner dies in the cellblock, Worsley explained, "that causes Jake to shift his position of isolation to one of cooperation and collaboration with these other men."
"The Box" doesn't romanticize the inmates or seek to justify the violent crimes that first landed them in prison.
"The men in this play are not saints," said Shourd. "They're flawed. They're sometimes hilarious, sometimes really disturbing and unsettling human beings."
The playwright and actors hope "The Box" will make audiences think hard about the use of long-term solitary confinement.
"It's easy to convince people that we shouldn't be putting innocent people in solitary confinement or prison," said Shourd. "But what are we going to do with the reality that in order to end mass incarceration, we have to deal with a lot of really violent individuals?"
"The Box" plays at San Francisco's Z Space theater through the end of July.