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Unchained Melody 

Music and poetry, not plot, create A Place to Stand's emotional impact

Wednesday, Mar 21 2007
There's nothing very musical about doing time. There's not much poetry in being stuck in an isolation cell. Yet from Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol, to Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time), to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," artists have long been drawn to poetry and music as a way of conveying something about the experience of prison life. While narrative dramas about imprisonment such as Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain's Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom and Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow send out powerful, often didactic messages about the horrors of incarceration, the more lyrical art forms of music and poetry connect the listener to the subject at the primal, emotional level.

Camp Santo's new performance piece about different forms of imprisonment, A Place To Stand, weaves together texts by Indio-Mexican poet Jimmy Santiago Baca and African-American playwright Ntozake Shange with music, to give voice to some of the most intangible effects of imprisonment on the individual and communities. The production kicks off Intersection for the Arts' Prison Project, a yearlong series of events aimed at exploring the California prison system through performances, readings, workshops, and exhibitions.

Most of the words in the piece are culled from Baca's memoir A Place to Stand and story "The Three Sons of Julia," and Shange's novel Liliane. But anyone expecting this new production to resemble Haze — a recent Camp Santo effort that brought together the writings of several different authors including Dave Eggers — is in for a bit of a shock. The work contains some of the elements associated with conventional drama: It features the vague outlines of dialogue, characters, and plot. Yet the experience of watching director Sean San José's highly strung exploration of the cultural, physical, and emotional impact of captivity upon those both inside and outside the prison walls is more akin to listening to a piece of free-form jazz as it might be played by a saxophonist whose entire family has just been killed in a gang shootout, than it resembles the experience of sitting through a straight play about that same musician.

Deeply steeped in melody and rhyme, there's enough raw feeling in A Place to Stand to fill an entire detention center with salty human tears. The main narrative strand in the piece tells a story of violence, death, and despair. A long-suffering mother, Julia, patiently awaits the release of her hotheaded son, Terrazo, from jail. But Terrazo's cell doors remain locked. Meanwhile, Terrazo's ex-girlfriend, Liliane, tries to cope with her own tragedy. Forced by her former lover to swallow a large amount of cocaine during a drug raid, Liliane has not only lost the baby girl that she was carrying, but is also doing time.

In A Place to Stand's most gripping moments, clench-fisted feelings of anger and desperation are conveyed through an expressive collage of contrasting sounds. Catherine Castellanos plays the ever-patient Julia as passionately as an actor might play any of Federico Garcia Lorca's woebegone matriarchs. The harsh snap of bed sheets being folded as Julia enters in her first scene betrays the inner state of a person who's been chewed up and spat out by life. The singing of her favorite old song, "La Paloma Blanca" near the end of the play sweetly echoes the dignity and poise in every one of the character's gestures.

The "soundtracks" that accompany Terrazo's and Liliane's lives are very different than the one that underscores Julia's. Using both his own body and Victor Cartagena's gray, industrial set as percussion instruments, Carlos Aguirre as Terrazo conveys the fury and lost dreams of his character through slapping the concrete walls and plastic furniture, as well as heightening the impact of some of his more psychological speeches through beatbox and rap. As Liliane, meanwhile, Savannah Shange (the playwright's daughter) appears possessed. The performer's slight frame bunched up in its baggy orange prison nightgown belies a thundering voice. There's a frightening, super-human quality to this young female actor channeling the vocal qualities of James Earl Jones. At the same time, Scheherazade Stone's ethereal Lily (a representation, perhaps, of Liliane's inner conscience in human form) mirrors Liliane's thoughts. Lily's husky-soothing renditions of Bob Marley songs like "Crazy Baldheads," "Concrete Jungle," and "Burnin and Lootin" suggest Liliane's bittersweet memories and constantly tortured mind.

The music and poetry in A Place to Stand are what gives this meditation on incarceration direction and shape. While the two authors' texts don't always meld together seamlessly — I, for one, had trouble discerning the relationships between the various characters at times — the musical qualities of Shange and Baca's writing as well as the play's vivid use of sound effects and song maintain the work's emotional core. At the heart of the play is Howard Wiley and Tommy Shepherd's score, comprising an array of varying musical states of mind from bebop jazz and classic dancehall to hip hop and rap. More than perhaps any other element in the piece, Wiley and Shepherd's soundtrack captures what it is to cycle through so many conflicting emotions. In combination with intermittent sound effects like the slamming of the heavy sliding door at the back of the set, police sirens, birdsong, and heartbeats, the soundscape ultimately gets closer to expressing that which the words themselves fail to convey: the destructive effects of a prison system that is supposed to rehabilitate people but achieves quite the reverse.

Unfortunately, the production doesn't quite fulfill its expressive potential. Given that the musical qualities of A Place to Stand are what give the piece most of its emotional power, it's a shame that San José doesn't have his finger on the volume control dial. The work isn't long, but it's very loud, with the actors punctuating many of their lines with assorted shrieks, shouts, and wails for emotional emphasis. It's not long before the histrionics of the cast grate on the nerves. A mood of forced, desperate rage prevails over almost the entire work, hitting the same note over and over, despite the wide musical palette laid out before us. Instead of heaping on the emotion, the actors should lock themselves in a little and set the music free to do what it does best: connect with our souls.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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