‘Mariposa & the Saint’: A Visceral Look at Solitary Confinement Through Theater
Activist Julia Steele Allen brings the cruelty-as-policy of prison isolation to the stage
All images courtesy of Noelle Ghoussaini
Mariposa & the Saint is theater as witness. It invites you to put a human face and beating heart to the cruelty-as-policy of solitary confinement. The (almost) one-woman show was sewn from letters written from within prison isolation by Sara (Mariposa) Fonseca to friend on the outside and current collaborator Julia Steele Allen, while she was serving 15 months in solitary.
What began as an exercise between two friends to combat the soul-suck and insidious monotony of Mariposa’s 6×9 cell has been painstakingly shaped into a shield of art-as-activism, a tool by which to give voice to the voiceless. In performance, Steele Allen, a long-time prison reform activist, surrenders herself as living avatar for Mariposa, inhabiting her friend’s words and story, juxtaposing the tiny, concrete box of solitary with the rolling landscape of the mind.
Since September, Mariposa & the Saint has been touring the United States, keying in specifically on the eight states with active legislation or statewide campaigns calling to restrict or entirely abolish the use of long-term solitary confinement—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado, and California.
We jumped at the chance to chat with Julia and learn more.
Mass Appeal: The conversation of imprisonment, and specifically the use of solitary confinement, is often framed by the question “What did that person do to get there?” as if the answer to that somehow legitimizes the inhumane treatment thereafter. As an artist, why use solitary as the gateway into the prison system?
Julia Steele Allen: I think it speaks to people’s own worst fears. To be put in a very tiny place, indefinitely, with no rights, no recourse, or process that you can appeal to. You’re just put in a box, by yourself and that’s it. I feel like almost anyone can imagine it and go there. It sounds like the living nightmare that it actually is. To be able to share that with people and hear back from them—every night after each performance, we also have a dialogue that happens with a formally incarcerated person who has spent time in solitary. It brings it home for people.
We are actually saying this is happening in your own county, not just in your state or city. So people have gone on this very emotional journey of the play, and then it continues by someone describing there own experience, sitting there in front of you, a real person. Many of the speakers will describe these very specific, incredible details of what their experience was like. Different elements that were either extraordinarily painful to them or what they were able to survive on. Someone was just describing in Wisconsin how he was able to keep an appleseed, to literally foster and care for it to the point that it actually sprouted and how that gave true meaning to his life. People tell story after story of the harrowing reality of it. Because of an extraordinarily graphic and terrible extreme of the prison system, people start to reconsider. That’s the seed of the conversation that we’re focused on. The play is not about Mariposa’s crime. The play is about the conditions she has endured while being inside.
When I used to talk about this play and the process of creating it, 99 percent of people would ask what she did to get in there. If it wasn’t the first question, then it was the second or third. Every time, I would have to take a pause, take a breath. Now, that we’ve performed it more than 45 times, only like three people have ever asked that. We literally get hundreds of questions at these Q&A’s, and now people ask about everything else. They are desperate to know how Mariposa is doing and about her kids. Now, they are totally invested. And that’s art. It’s like “Aha, it’s working.” What we are doing is working.
You’ve been involved in prison reform since the 1990s and have had a front row seat to the slow-evolving national shift on mass incarceration. What has your experience of that trajectory been like?
At the start, I was in California. It was a really active time for prison reform and abolition. It was the dawning of the prison industrial complex. I was part of the first critical resistance conference at UC Berkeley with Angela Davis and there was a lot of energy at that point. It was the late ’90s and there’d been a huge spike in the criminalization of youth: Prop 21 and all these gang laws, mandatory minimums, and three-strikes legislation that was happening all over the country. All of it was in response—even into the 2000s—to school shootings, and different ways to come down on youth of color in the cities. All this crazy legislation was putting together the pieces to this total crisis of mass incarceration that we are in today. In the last few years though, we’re seeing a tremendous spike in dissent and dialogue and people coming out from all different sectors to say that this is wrong. It’s a huge waste of tax payer money and a huge loss of collective life. So, it really is a remarkable time. But, it is not moving nearly fast enough for the 2.5 million people behind bars and their families. But, it definitely feels like a moment. The play and our project came into being at the right time in a way because solitary has a spotlight on it and people want tools to engage other people around the issue.
When Mariposa and I began it, it was truly just a way to keep her head in the game, just an artistic endeavor we were doing, the two of us. I wasn’t confident that it was ever going to be anything beyond that, and that was fine. Then, lo and behold, some years later, now [Laughs] it’s my whole life—traveling across the whole country. But, we do it because, to me, the timing requires it. And people want it. It blows my mind how audiences have huge reactions to it and are totally embracing it. I think, “Shit. This is the time.”
It only just occurred to me that while you take on the role of Mariposa in the play, we, as an audience, become you.
Yeah. That was actually an awesome choice that was made because it throws people into it from the very moment the play starts. It becomes more personal. The audience is literally part of our conversation. So every time I speak a letter—it’s all Mariposa’s words and her language, but she’s also directing it to the audience—I look at each of them in the eye. And they respond. I ask them a question and they’ll answer or laugh. They are instantly part of it. There was a lot of figuring out between me and our director, Noelle Ghoussaini, as to…if this is about someone kept in a tiny box, how are we going to create a play that is going to engage people?
Whenever direct address is used from the stage, everyone in the audience is sure that you are talking just to them. It can get uncomfortable for them.
Yeah. Sometimes, they are dodgy and look down and I think, “It’s not working,” or that I’m alienating them. But then they approach me afterwards and say they loved it and I couldn’t tell [Laughing] because they looked so uncomfortable.
But, we’re always thinking about how we can move an audience to actual action. So, there’s an action in that second half of the show that supports a local campaign. Petitions and postcards and things that people are kind of used to. But, it feels like there is a fire behind it. It feels like a start, not an end. If they built a memory around taking action once, then they are more likely to do it again.
How long did the process of writing back-and-forth and shaping the script take?
I mark it as two and half years, with real varying degrees of consistency and energy around it. The first 15 months that she was in, there was a lot more action. Before this, she’d never seen a play. I sent her plays to read, then promoting questions. She wrote back. I sent her the script. It blew her mind to finally see it as a script. She had tons of feedback. I also had an advisory team on the outside, so I got their feedback, which I sent to her too. There was a lot of different layers of dialogue that we were having. But, then she was in there too long. Essentially, they left her in there for another year on top of the 15 months. It became harder for her to focus on the play. She was just desperate to get out. So, roughly about two and a half years. But, even now, it’s a bit ongoing.
What has Sara taught you?
I think there are ways that I can’t even tell yet because I’m in the weeds of it still. I’ve known Mariposa for 10 years, so there are all sorts of ways that she has impacted my life. She is a really extraordinary, complicated person. We never present her as some innocent. There is all this effort to make the public feel sympathy for like first-time drug offenders. But, she is a violent offender. She is someone that has made some really intense choices given her circumstances. Part of this is about exploring someone’s circumstances and not just judge them for one moment in their lives. I mean, she’s totally inspiring. She’s funny and sharp as shit and really fierce and she can be scary when she wants to be. She’s brilliant. She taught herself to read while inside. The power of her work is so palpable it only made sense that it would be a play because her words are so charged. I get to experience that as an artist performing her words. I also think that there was a way that we connected right away, so there is a lot of trust—and there has to be. It’s so different to create with someone, none the less, with someone who is really far away and purposefully isolated. Our exchanges have to travel this massive journey just to reach each other. And she’s dealing with her whole life. She trusts me to bring her words and experiences to people she herself can not meet and know. It’s a gift and a huge responsibility.
It’s that weird line, right? Because in a sense, it’s like the least that you can do: to donate yourself to performing this every night, to make sure that people know about these conditions. But, it’s also a huge responsibility to shoulder, night after night. On behalf of your friends and the estimated 80,000 people that are in solitary right now. That’s hell of intense.
Yeah. Something that has become more compelling to me over the last 10 months has been performing for the harder audiences. We do a lot of church shows. For the most part, a lot of them are already on board. It’s a way to recharge or galvanize them. But, we’ve gotten access to spaces were the play is literally the chance to turn the dial for people who are in very clear positions of power. Where their mind is being changed or their heart is being opened and it can have real, lasting consequences. Like doing it for this 9th Circuit Federal Judges Conference. That was all wardens, corrections officials, and judges. To me, not the easiest performance [Laughing], but by far the most compelling.
In Massachusetts, we performed in the home district of the head of Judiciary Committee while he was the target to get this bill introduced that would drastically limit their solitary population. People invited him to come, but none actually expected him to show. But, he came. And stayed for the whole show and the dialogue after. When he showed up, some of the organizers ran down to where I was getting ready to go onstage and they were just in a flurry of disbelief. [Laughing] And I’m like okay. Okay. Damn, like how important is this? [Laughing] No big deal. Now, I just have to go out there and perform. But, holy shit. This is exactly where we need to be and who we need to be in front of. As long as I have the energy to do this, it’s about how can we get ourselves in front of corrections officials, wardens, and legislatures. Even C.O.s and their families, people that have a real stake in the system. Like we said earlier, there’s a lot of eye contact and when I have resistance from the crowd, it’s a tough show for me, but it’s the best use of the tool.
There remain significant obstacles to reform, the corrections officers’ union being a major one.
Absolutely. It’s hard. In the play, we have a C.O. on stage, but he is masked and nonspeaking. He’s meant to represent the system. That’s what Mariposa wanted. He’s there and becomes symbolic. But it’s not the best, most relatable position for an audience of C.O.s for example. But, I think that work needs to be done. If not with our play, than with others, to humanize their condition. They’re all not one big mob. But, the unions are absolutely an obstacle and do block a lot of solitary confinement reform legislation.
As the national conversation begins to include support programs and plans for re-entry, do you believe that there also needs to be dialogue concerning the transitions from solitary back to the general prison population and from solitary straight to the outside world?
Totally. We talk a lot about the releasing of people from the S.H.U. [the name given to solitary units in the California and New York prison systems] to the street. New York releases something like 4,000 people a year from the S.H.U. to the street, essentially dumping them somewhere like Times Square, which is a huge public safely risk and a complete injustice to these people who are given little chance to make that adjustment. Some of the reforms that we are now trying to be pushed through contain vital pieces addressing this transition. Things like step-down programs. Mariposa herself was supposed to get out of the S.H.U. and was to have a year to prepare before she would get out of prison. But, that was the year, they left her in solitary longer. She was looking at going from the S.H.U. to the street, which totally terrified her and was exactly what she didn’t want. When people are trying to organize towards their parole, they are trying to connect with family or outside programs. They need access to the phone, to the Internet. How can she be organizing for herself to have the best shot at being back in the public and getting a job and having a life if she’s in a tiny, isolated room where she can’t do anything?
And officials will side step solitary’s spotlight by calling it by different names.
Yeah. Different names but essentially the same thing. Sometimes, people are double celled, so it’s not literally solitary confinement, but they are sharing the same exact sized room with one other person for the same amount of time. Some people say the only thing worse than solitary confinement, is solitary confinement with one other person. If they double book them, then they can say it’s not solitary.
Solitary erodes people’s mental health, so now they’re going to need more support than they would have needed otherwise. The system is designed to break people. So, if you are going to break people as part of your policy then what are we going to do to build them back up again so that they can be released and function?
Upcoming performance dates for Mariposa & the Saint:
Sunday, June 5 & Monday, June 6, Rochester, NY at 7:30pm
MuCCC (Multi-use Community Cultural Center)
142 Atlantic Ave.
Wednesday, June 8, Beacon, NY at 7:00pm
Beacon Hebrew Alliance
331 Verplanck Ave. (at Fishkill Ave.)
Thursday, June 9, Brooklyn, NYC at 7:30pm
Mayday Community Space
176 St. Nicholas Avenue (Bushwick)
Friday, June 10, Bronx, NYC at 7:00pm
New Settlement Community Campus
1501 Jerome Ave. (enter on Goble Place)
Friday, June 24, Washington, D.C.
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
1313 New York Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20005