“The Box,” written and directed by Sarah Shourd, captures the horror of solitary confinement through both narrative and sensory experiences.
Shourd herself was held for 400 days as an American political prisoner in Iran, and she collaborated with other survivors of solitary confinement to create the play, which premiered in 2016. In “The Box” Shourd plays a prison guard, alongside a cast which includes several formerly incarcerated people.
Currently, “The Box” is on a ten-city national tour which stopped recently in Austin for a one-weekend run at Holy Cross Catholic Church, produced in partnership with Texas After Violence Project, Texas Inmates’ Families Association, Texas Prisons Community Advocates, and Texas Center for Justice and Equity.
Sound plays a big role in the one-act production — screaming, clanging, jangling of keys, and jarring voice of the prison guard create an uncomfortable sensory experience. And lights surrounding each cell (raised platforms the exact size of cells) flash harshly whenever a character comes into focus. The sounds of violence, of fights, of the slamming of doors characterize the harsh sensory conditions experienced by those in solitary – extreme quiet then intense, shocking, sounds.
The narrative follows four men in solitary confinement, one a new arrival. Storylines are inspired by true stories but never exact tellings. Rocky, the new arrival suffers deeply in the first days of his incarceration, even as the others try to welcome him. His death by suicide throws the floor into disarray, inspiring a hunger strike and even greater animosity from the prison guards. Ray, a political activist, who was freed, has trouble adjusting to life on the outside after decades in “the hole.” Santiago struggles to make his daughter Olivia proud, plagiarizing poems before organizing a hunger strike with a former white nationalist who makes sexual comments about his daughter.
Yet even as the play showcases the inhumanity of the conditions faced by the four men in solitary — the lack of light, phone calls, comfort, and community — it doesn’t ignore the harm the incarcerated can do to each other. Jake is a white nationalist, Rocky makes sexual comments towards a prison guard, and even Santiago lies about his writing. But these factors don’t make these men any less human, any more deserving of torture. Their guilt is never confirmed or denied but instead remains secondary to the play’s message. Solitary confinement is defined as torture by the United Nations and the focus of “The Box” is on the inhumanity of that. The production successfully straddles a line, emphasizing the tortuous conditions of solitary confinement without creating fictionally “perfect” prisoners.
Though not participatory, the production was intensely immersive, with chairs surrounding the “cell block” on the same level as the actors. This staging allowed a level of close engagement especially during the healing circle at the end of the performance — a powerful moment of meditation when many formerly incarcerated people in attendance chose to share their stories.