Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Grounded" also at Ubuntu Theater

Review by Wanda Sabir

Don’t miss “Grounded” by George Brant, directed by Emilie Whelan. Heather Ramey’s performance at the Oakland Aviation Museum, is awesome! We are in a hanger with airplanes surrounding us, one overhead. It is really really cool.  Intimate, there is a tiny stage and a table and chair, which provides the space for the narrative to unfold – there is desert in Nevada and Desert Storm in Iraq.  The parallels pile up unevenly and fall in a heap. We meet the pilot as she crawls from below—

The highly decorated, snazzy Major is good at what she does, fly. She is so good, the men see her as one of the boys. Most men she tells us are intimidated by her wings and her love of the Blue, but then she meets her match and goes flying and dropping bombs to sitting in a chair and navigating a drone.  

In both cases, she is fighting for her country.

Flying by the seat of her pants, means she is not in physical danger, and can go home every night to her family, but who gives the United States the right to play God?

It is a riveting work which looks at post-traumatic stress syndrome. The pilot’s melt down is subtle, but recognizable. It happens quickly or so it seems.  The fact that her commanding officer notices the signs and lets her crash speaks to the stigma mental illness carries, even today.

The director, Emilie Whelan says of Grounded, “The play is an act of confession, an act of brave confession in which [the pilot] must take stock in the actions that have led to this moment. Memory, the past, is a funny and fickle thing that too easily slips away if it is not recalled intentionally. Grounded recalls a contemporary isolation that is hard to bear.”

Harmful events which are beyond what is reasonable to expect, cause trauma. These experiences are not stored in places memories are normally stored. Our minds take information and creates connections between the new material and what is already stored. With trauma, which is an experience outside the norm, there is nothing to compare it to, so it is sublimated. Sublimated, it is hard to retrieve. These memories can show up in reenactments or dreams or not at all. Yet, even when unrecognized or irretrievable, these experiences can affect our behavior. We see this in Grounded, as the pilot’s 12 hours watching a grey screen in a dark trailer bleeds into her reality and the two become inseparable.

Haunted.  Ghosts stock her, and because the job is classified, she cannot share her burden with her husband who loves her or even the therapist he talks her into visiting. “Grounded” is certainly a play that should have all of us picking up our phones to demand that soldiers have mental health support before they have a crisis, and that officers take their soldiers’ mental health seriously. I guess we should really think about a war where people are killed by a mouse click on a screen. There is something unethical and cowardly about a fight where machines shoot people from the sky. America can see the prey, but the predator is hidden. There is no honor in such a fight.  Again site specific, George Brant’s play, “Grounded,” at the Oakland Aviation Museum, 8252 Earhart Road, Oakland, closes August 15, 8 p.m. For all the details visit 

Ubuntu Theater Project's The Brothers Size

Deleon Dallas’s Ogun Size hugs his brother
Terrance White’s Oshoosi Size

The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney @  Ubuntu Theatre
A review by Wanda Sabir

Ubuntu Theater’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size is simply phenomenal. Let’s start by saying this theatre company which has distinguished itself with a remarkable three summer tenure is amazing when you learn that the directors and most of the cast are students or alumni of the University of California, San Diego, that is, seeped in academia the rest of the year—Lucky for Bay Area theatre lovers, Ubuntu is their practicum for a few months each summer.

Wednesday evening, my friend and I are driving down San Pablo looking for a garage, as in repair shop. This is where The Brothers Size is staged. I am looking, pass the garage and have to turn around. When we pull up we see a sign, and three actors walk by us. We hurriedly close the car doors and follow the cast into the rear of the shop where there are folding chairs for the audience; the seat of a vehicle which doubles as Oshoosi’s bed, complete with a teddy bear, is in front of us along with cars in various stages of repair. We learn later that Oshoosi believes in Santa Claus. You have to love a man who admits this at twenty-one. 

Big brother, Ogun Size works on cars. It’s his gift.  He and iron get along well. The ore speak to him and he can make engines purr and horns sing basslines. He’s happy his kid brother is back from a stint in prison. Like all families of incarcerated persons, he suffered and felt the bars surrounded him just like his brother. When Oshoosi walked back into his brother’s arms, both experienced freedom.

Oshoosi is the talkative brother. Ogun is annoyed and happy to hear the chatter. Cars and metal don’t fill the space like another human being does. Handsome, yet practical, Ogun has been taking care of Oshoosi for most of his life, at least since their mother died and their Aunt Ellegua reluctantly took the boys in. They laugh about it as adults, but one can see the pain, loneliness and abandonment the two experienced as children.

Actor, Deleon Dallas’s Ogun Size is a man of few words but with a large heart, while Terrance White’s Oshoosi Size has a youthful exuberance that is contagious.  We can see in Ogun’s eyes pride in his little brother who has big dreams and the intelligence to succeed in whatever he puts his mind too. As he listens to his brother speak about his dreams of travel and college, he worries about Oshoosi, what he attracts and what he can’t see in others whom attach themselves to his good nature like lint or cockleburs. Elegba (actor William H.P.), a man he met in prison is like this. Ogun tells his brother, “you don’t meet friends in prison,” yet Oshoosi doesn’t understand what his elder brother means until it’s too late. 

William H.P.’s Elegba in center
This is a story about black gods who are reduced to playing out their huge lives on a stage drafted by their magnificence. Even William H.P.’s Elegba is larger than the town which threatens the dignity of every black resident. The one policeman, a black man, sees as his duty one of humiliation towards every black citizen. That Elegba works at a funeral home, could foreshadow the death sentence lingering in the shadows.

Brothers Size have each other. Elegba seems an outsider. He latches onto Oshoosi like a puppy eager for a home. The home he knows best is prison, while Oshoosi is free and does not plan to return. There is a subtle conditioning we see in Elegba’s aura, absent in his friend’s. It is Ogun who holds the space for his brother, even after he gets too old for lullabies, to feel freedom. Ogun tries to give his brother space to live his life and make his mistakes, but Oshoosi doesn’t have the luxury of living and learning. No black man does. One mistake and the living is gone. Lessons are costly for the Size brothers.

Ogun is practical. He loves Oya , but knows he cannot compete when she turns her gaze towards Shango. Shango is a player; he also has Oshun.  The god of iron and war, the goddess of the winds and rains, hurricanes, storms; the goddess of beauty and love . . . meet at the crossroads (Elegba). Choices have to be made. What will be the outcome for the Size men?

Directed by Keith Wallace, with Stephanie Ann Johnson’s lighting design, Steve Leffue’s sound design, Mary Hill’s set and Candance Thomas’s vocal couching and directing, the weather Wednesday evening was lighting with occasional sprinkles. The drama enhanced the production, especially when the men sang the prologue, then again when Oshoosi and Elegba danced – it was more deceptive. An Elegba kept entangling Oshoosi who was finding it harder and harder to escape the widening net–

Ogun dreams as they dance, then wakes to a premonition he cannot articulate.

There are many moments like this, where time stands still – dark moments, moments where the humidity moans and mosquitos buzz and bite.  Sitting with an umbrella up in the second row worked out pretty well since there was no on behind us. I was amazed that Ubuntu theatre (for this production) is in an auto garage and yes, it was cold.

Bring a blanket and wear a coat. Bring a hot beverage in a thermos too.  Ubuntu co-founder, Colin Blattel and his mother traveled by car from Oakland to Albany or further on San Pablo Avenue looking for a garage to sponsor the play. The shops were not clamoring to say yes, but I would certainly support a shop that supports Ubuntu Theatre. The neighbors called the police multiple times during the first few days, requiring the theatre to get permits and still the neighbors didn’t check out the theatre and the performance. Perhaps they will before the show closes Wednesday-Saturday, August 19-22.

The Brothers Size is the new premiere this season. Grounded and Waiting for Lefty are back. Crying Holy opened the season. Again site specific, George Brant’s play, “Grounded” is at the Oakland Aviation Museum, 8252 Earhart Road, Oakland for one week, closing August 15, 8 p.m., and Clifford Odet’s Waiting for Lefty is at Classic Cars West, 411 26th Street, September 3-12, Wednesday-Sunday. I don’t see that Maya is being performed this year. There is no show, Sept. 11. For all the details visit

For a recent interview listen at:

Friday, August 07, 2015

Wanda's Picks Friday, August 7, 2015

Take this link and spread the word about this marvelous show:

Thanks Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, The Brothers Size cast (Umbuntu Theatre) and Michelle Jacques, Chelle's Juke Joint, for a great show which moved between human rights for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Americans; to The Brother's Size, a play that looks at the effects of this system on a family in a small Louisiana town, to closing with Michelle Jacques, a NOLA native, whose culture work with indigenous American-African music resonates with the rhythms and consciousness of "home" and "belonging" for those who through what Dorsey calls, "structural discrimination," might be scattered and displaced, but are not forgotten -- at least not by us, and we are mighty (smile). Michelle's music, as all art does, like Tarell McCraney, playwright, has done with the work, The Brothers Size, humanizes the experience of fraternal love and elevates it to divinity or god consciousness. If you do not know McCraney's work (MacArthur genius awardee), then Umbuntu's staging, with phenomenal direction, is a great entry to his work. This story carried by these remarkable black men, actors: Deleon Dallas (Ogun Size), Terrance White (Oshoosi Size), and William H.P. (Elegba), is awesome. Don't miss it.

Description from website:

This is a black arts and culture site. We will be exploring the African Diaspora via the writing, performance, both musical and theatrical (film and stage), as well as the visual arts of Africans in the Diaspora and those influenced by these aesthetic forms of expression. I am interested in the political and social ramifications of art on society, specifically movements supported by these artists and their forebearers. It is my claim that the artists are the true revolutionaries, their work honest and filled with raw unedited passion. They are our true heroes. Ashay!

1. Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, updates us on current issues like the voting rights act for former prisoners and a conference Sept. 20-21 in Oakland.

2. The Brothers Size Cast, Terrance White, Deleon Dallas, William H.P., Umbuntu Theatre through Aug. 22 @ Dana Meyer Auto Care, Albany, CA

3. Michelle Jacques (Street Sounds, Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, Founder/Director of CHELLE! and Friends, La Mission Band), joins us to talk about CHELLE'S JUKE JOINT A CAPPELLA QUINTET which has a concert coming up August 26 at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, CA.

Friday, July 24, 2015

International Commemoration of African Ancestors of the Middle Passage in Oakland, CA

Saturday, June 13, the second Saturday in the month, at 9 a.m. we stood at Lake Merritt in Oakland reflecting on our ancestors as people jogged by, stretched and looked. Of course an assembly of Pan Africans dressed ceremonially in white and in African designs shattered perceptions lodged unconsciously in the minds of most about black people. Like lint, ideas and perceptions stick to our intellectual or thought-producing surfaces engaging us in ways we come to articulate much too late.

After parking, I pressed the button and crossed the street from Merritt Bakery to the side of the street where the Lake is, where I watched black men and women doing Tai Chi – As I walked down the stairs I greeted friends I'd seen too seldom over the past 12 months and met others I didn't know. We were a larger group than ever before, yet not too large. What is lovely about the Oakland gathering was its intimacy.

– When I got to the other side I set up the altar, lit the votive candles (2), put a book in the center with water. Another person added a sea shell. There was a table set up for people to sign in, along with a chair for the eldest person present, Sister Makinyah Kouyate.

Frederick Douglass came to our ancestor tribute in Oakland— We were honored to have the much younger man join us. Currently staying in San Francisco, not many recognized the elder statesman as a youth.  Clean cut, wearing a cloth cap, he took off to address us, we marveled at his bearing and composure, his critique of liberty in an unjust system for a people wronged morally, politically and economically. He shared with us words from his first book, the Autobiography, Written by Himself. He then invited us to join him at Mount Misery, the plantation he is staying at, owned now by Donald Rumsfeld, previously owned by the haunting slave-breaker Edward Covey.  

A play on stage at Cuttingball Theatre in San Francisco that weekend. Giovanni Adams, the actor portraying young Douglass said, if anyone wanted to attend, just tell the theatre Frederick Douglass invited them (smile).

The day was beautiful, sunny, warm – the geese were swimming in threes on the calm Lake in the center of Oakland, near downtown.  I learned that week that the second Saturday is also the Yoruba New Year. The participants ranged in age from about seven to past eighty. Friends were out jogging; just a few feet from us there was a personal trainer and his client preparing to run. A friend jogged by, another man stopped, poured libations and then continued on his way.

One sister spoke of the importance of maintaining our body temple, the importance of keeping it fit and in good health. She said one way to do this is to monitor what we consume. She said she had had many unnecessary or preventable surgeries. Health, both physical and mental is wealth. This was echoed by others who followed her to the pier to pour libations and give thanks.

I felt heavy, yet as people called their families’ names I began to feel able to speak. After the libations two sisters shared lovely poetry, a piece by Maya Angelou, Prayer, and an original piece written at an Ancestor Libation last year.

After announcements there was a collective recitation of the 42 Laws of Maat with commentary by scholar, Molefi Asante, Ph.D.  Sister Yaya then closed the circle and Sister Makulla shared information about the Maafa Commemoration Foundation and the Lest We Forget/Umbuntu Council. There was so much to do that day, lots of choices: Juneteenth in San Francisco, the Berkeley World Music Festival, Black Performing Arts Exposition opening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. . . .  I ended up taking my friend and her mother home and then going to the health food store for supplements and kale, and then I went home to do laundry and prepare for school the following week.

The evening before a friend and I went to hear Thomas Mapfumo and the Black Spirits. He is on tour with his latest project, Danger Zone and Lion Songs, the second compilation to accompany the biography by the same title. At Ashkanez Music and Dance Center in Berkeley he played the acoustic versions many of the new songs. This was a delightful surprise—in this way, we were really able to hear the subtle nuances of the work –

Julia Chigamba and many other Zimbabweans and friends were in the audience, so we were treated to a floor show everyone was invited to participate in. People danced with unopened bottles of water on their heads. One woman, with skills, danced with a cup of water on hers and did not spill one drop.

My friend, Zoe, from Chicago and I went back stage afterward to buy CDs and meet the Lion of Zimbabwe, Mr. Mapfumo, called such for his fierce sense of righteous and his advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised people. Mapfumo’s music formed much of the soundtrack of Zimbabwe’s revolution. Afterward he was so happy; this happiness turned to despair when the victors began to mistreat their people. He composed an album, which made it impossible for him to remain in his country. He has been in exile for 22 years.

As Mapfumo spoke of home, one could see the nostalgia in his face. His tour takes him to Mozambique this year. The artist says people are asking him to come home. I wonder if he will dare try it. There is another book coming out in July, this one written by Mapfumo’s people.

The reason why I wanted to see Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, the day before Libations for African Ancestors was to talk to the ancestors—Shona music is the music of the ancestors. The music Mapfumo plays is sacred, especially the folkloric tune which he opened the first set with, Varimudande (People of Dande): A spiritual song from the mbira repertoire. The words talk about “the spiritual background of our people, our ancestors.”

It was a beautiful evening and beautiful weekend for African Ancestors. Ashay!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Choir Boy @ MTC extended through July 5

Playwright and MacArthur Genius, Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy is a story which like all McCraney tales, twists and turns as it makes its way to a conclusion or perhaps collision . . . all completely unexpected.

The setting is the Charles Drew Preparatory School, where its seniors are excited about the choir they all belong too. The choir is one its board boasts and the community appreciates. When we meet Pharus, a junior (Jelani Alladin), he is a confident team player. He is a Drew Man and snitching is not something Drew Men ascribe too.  He will not tell the Headmaster which boy(s) heckled him as he sang the school anthem for the graduating senior class. Pharus is gay and though the name calling has continued for the entire four years he has been a student at the Charles Drew, Pharus, in his final year, can still hold his head up.

Choir Boy, directed by Kent Gash, is a collection of many smaller stories-- that of the boys on scholarship and those with relatives on the board. There are stories of budding relationships and the stigma of same sex love. There are also the stories of institutional bias and inflexibility and the losses incurred when there are no second chances. There are moments of tenderness here as well.

Roommates Pharus and "AJ" or Anthony Justin James (Jaysen Wright), a football star, loves his friend Pharus and is not afraid of their differences. There are quite a few wonderful moments between the boys where AJ, especially in actor, Wright's capable hands we see Pharus's load lifted.  AJ is not intimidated by what his family or the other students, think of his sharing a room with a gay kid. He knows that Pharus respects his choices, and is comfortable with the smart youth, who is so talented. He is also not embarrassed or ashamed of his body and his contact with a boy who finds him attractive.

When Headmaster Morrow (Ken Robinson) is looking for answers to the bullying Pharus experiences and asks AJ what he knows, we learn of yet another side of this ostracized young man.  It is a great scene. AJ speaks of what Pharus has lost, the fear in his eyes and how he misses his friend whose spirit is now gone.

In a homophobic society, same gender attraction is not something one can talk about, even if such is normal. When one of the boys falls in love with Pharus, he doesn't know where to turn or who to talk to. This inability to share his confusing feelings with a parent or teacher to sort things out lead to one of the many unexpected conclusions Choir Boy is full of.  Another parallel story is retired teacher, Mr. Pendleton (Charles Shaw Robinson) who teaches a class on critical thinking. 

Pendleton is hailed for his civil rights work with Dr. King, yet in a moment with the boys, we see how close the events of the sixties weight on the scholar. We are not aware of his emotional back story until he explodes quite unexpectedly. It is a beautiful moment in the play. We don't think enough about the war that was the Civil Rights Movement. We call the survivors "veterans," yet act surprised with they suffer from the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. His trigger is the boys' use of the n-word. The twist is that the veteran is white.

In the Critical Thinking class the boys choose a theory to deconstruct. Pharus takes on Negro Spirituals and comes to the conclusion that there was no coded language used by enslaved persons or captives to plot their escapes. Besides the fact that the sky is one large map and it certainly helped many escapees get north to freedom, there is ample evidence of the coding, seen recently in Taiwo Kehinde-Kujichagulia's "Go Tell It," the story of Harriett Tubman's Christmas Rescue in 1864 (!about/c139r)

This unexpected twist is just another point where the audience is thrown a curve ball. Why a character who loves Negro Spirituals so much, would choose this topic is still beyond me, especially given the fact that Pharus is based loosely on the playwright's own life.

It goes without question the musicality within the play, which while not a musical features lovely moments on stage where the audience can just melt into its seats. When the headmaster sings his one solo-- on his knees, the lights low . . . we are like "wow." The talent show where the boys get to share a song their parents might have danced to is another fun aspect of the play, which is heavy and light at the same time. 

The few boys who share are Dimitri Woods's complicated "Bobby Marrow," with his sidekick, Rotimi Agbabiaka's Junior Davis (the foreign student);  Forest Van Dyke's troubled "David Heard" performs alone for Pendleton a beautiful solo. David is a scholarship student who is worried about money and grades all the time. While Bobby is a legacy student, whose uncle is the Headmaster.

The plot is thick and sticky, indeed (smile). 

In the marvelously directed and staged Marin Theatre Company production of "Choir Boy," extended through July 5, there are showers with real water and the boys use soap-- I guess I needed mention the frontal nudity (smile). The point here is how well utilized the stage is, from commencement dais to dorms.

"Choir Boys" allows a shift in perception . . . actor, Jelani Alladin's "Pharus Jonathan Young" is so engaging, so delightful that when he is harmed visibly, I say visibly because this young man has been harmed in so many ways throughout his life, whether this was when his friend disowned him at the barbershop or when he had to hold his own at the corner store, Pharus carries a lot and at Drew, his burden is not at all lightened (except in the lovely moments already mentioned with AJ).

Headmaster Marrow comes to understand how much Pharus bears near the end of the senior year, but by then it is too late. McCraney's character is not a stereotype. Actor Alladin's "Pharus" is a boy his classmates might not love, but whom they can certainly admire even actor Woods's "Bobby," one of the more aggressive of them.  Choir Boy makes the case for anti-bullying training, Drew Academy a prime candidate for such. No child should have to suffer what Pharus and his bullies do.

School is not the real world. It is a place children and young adults get to practice or rehearse for a life that gives no second chances. We might not get to heaven in this McCraney production, but it won't be for lack of trying (smile).

For tickets visit

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Book of Mormon, A Cautionary Review

Paying to be Insulted
By Wanda Sabir

From the first song out of the African's mouths . . . F-God, to the last note, "The Book of Mormon" is an insult to African sensibility. White Jesus, cursed black gods . . . ignorant starving diseased backward Africans who are cutting women's clitorises off, and raping babies to cure AIDS. All the saviors are young white men in white shirts and dark slacks. The only time you see a big performance number starring the natives, it takes place in Elder Price's head when he dreams he is in hell, and guess who the devil is? A black man in red, playing guitar like Jimi Hendrix. There were a lot of black people in this hell, celebrities too. One was Johnnie Cochran -- I almost walked out.

Then it got worse.

I don't know how conscious black people told me they liked the play.  It is a play about missionaries; these missionaries are from New York. I don't know if I knew the history of this church, but frankly, proselytizing has really stepped it up. Imagine an entire theatre full of people paying to be brainwashed? The times must be hard for white supremacy. Perhaps the musical's appeal is the fact that it supports the mythology of black inferiority and heathenism. One of the closing songs is "We are Africa." Guess who sings it? The white boys.

Jokes about the devil being yellow and how Africans need to watch out for Asians is correct-- China to be exact, but look who is telling the story, missionaries who are also the enemy to African sovereignty. Up to 1978, Mormons believed all black people were devils too. Now, there are lots of black Mormons who attend temple in Oakland. There was even a black bishop in charge of this region, but back to the plot, the reason this village is so violated and economically stressed is because western nations have exploited its resources and kept the indigenous peoples at odds with one another, so no one recognizes the true enemy.

One of the boys (Elder Cunningham) has the nerve to like the chief's daughter, Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube), but he cannot pronounce her name, yet she answers to all his ridiculous attempts. She sees Salt Lake City as the Promised Land the Mormon missionaries will take her people to, if they believe. Just a small price to pay. She convinces her village and other villagers nearby to give the missionaries a chance. Maybe these white men will be different. She gives these boys an in; up to that point, Africans were not interested in Mormons or their religion.

What makes Cunningham's approach different is that he mixes folklore with truth, so that the god of his book agrees with the values he is promoting. He crafts a tale that addresses the ills these Ugandans face. What he tells Nabulungi's people is not on its pages, so in the end, Cunningham has to rewrite the book of Mormon. Cure AIDS with a green frog -- remember the green monkey theory of infection?

Cunningham and Price, two teenagers from NYC are introduced to a people supposedly without values or regard for life, not to mention god. These false ideas just further a stereotypical primitive dark continent scenario. Obviously, these black people need saving from themselves. The village chief is a mockery, so is the physician who complains about bugs in his genitals -- it is all slapstick humor. Remember "Scottsboro Boys," the vaudeville musical?

When the two men are robbed just as they arrive in the dusty little village, its chief teaches them his people's favorite saying when things go awry, F-god. . . Infidels? This is the same type rumor or mythology that started the trade in human beings, my ancestors 600 years ago. The creative trilogy that wrote and produced this trash -- Robert Lopez, Matt Stone, and Trey Parker, should be tarred and feathered.

The music might be catchy and the choreography cool, but what these catchy tunes do to the souls of its listeners is not worth the risk. At the end of the play, the villagers are gone. In their places stand imposters, Mormons ringing the bells of other Africans. Even the warlord is converted -- gone are the African cultural garments. The converts may be black or brown on the outside, but inside they are brainwashed . . . Joseph Smith, Brigham Young . . . on the inside. Latter Day Saints is just another Sweet by and Bye tale. Don't worry about today; let the multinationals steal, pillage, rob your nation blind.  God's going to take care of you -- "Later." Entire theatres of people since it went up in NYC March 2011 have been converted.

There is even a finale after the ovation. I couldn't take it anymore and left before the final bow. There is a reason why it took me three years to go see this play. Don't do it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mariposa and the Saint: From solitary confinement, a play through letters A Review by Wanda Sabir

The venue was full on a Thursday evening, so was the BART on the way back home . . . so I don’t know what was happening this weekday night, but obviously the city was alive, people actively engaged. Majority women in the house, there were a few stalwart men who stand with women locked up inside the prisons and jails and other custodial units which foster anything but rehabilitation and justice. A fundraiser for California Coalition for Women Prisoner, Sara (Mariposa) Fonseca and Julia Steele Allen’s “Mariposa and the Saint,” is a play created from letters or correspondence between an inmate in solitary confinement and a volunteer for a CCWP visiting team who became Mariposa’s friend.  From 2012-2013 the two women began writing the play and despite the literal barriers in place to thwart such relationships, the women push through all of this to forge a powerful friendship evident in the powerful story shared in the completed work, 2013-to now.

Dressed in a prison jumpsuit and sandal flip flops—prison chic, Mariposa whose alter ego is named, “Saint,” join forces to share her sad, yet powerful story with us. It is amazing how Mariposa hangs onto her dignity and positive outlook when her 15 months in the Security Housing Unit grows into three years, then her parole date is high-jacked while within sight.

She speaks about the suicides, and the systematic way the prison officials have normalized despair. Mariposa says that even if she doesn’t know the women’s stories locked up with her, even if she is not on speaking terms with all of them, they are all her sisters suffering the same indignities as they each try to hang onto their sanity and humanity.

Co-writer, Julia Steele Allen, presents “Mariposa” with humor and dignity.  We watch Mariposa win repeatedly when the isolation gets harder to bear, likewise her sanity harder to hang onto.  There are moments when Mariposa speaks directly to the audience about finding herself locked up, her children taken from her.  She speaks to us about what she misses, like the feel of wet grass between her toes. She then asks us, what would we miss? We even recite a poem she composed and sing together towards the end of a dense 45 minute performance. 

The idea of family is impossible for a prisoner in the SHU. Mariposa can have no phone calls. Solitary confinement is a place without sunshine. The cell shrinks and with it one’s soul. We are not clear why Mariposa is serving so much time. Nonetheless the teen mother, and young adult prisoner 32 when we meet her, 20 years already served, gets no breaks –a Native Californian Indigenous woman, Mi’Wok Tribe of Northern California, suffers from the historic vestiges— colonialism and genocide.

Directed by Noelle Ghoussaini, “Mariposa & The Saint” also features Zach Wymore who in uniform represents the state sanctioned institution which dispassionately seeks to dehumanize its captives.  Yet, somehow for many like “Mariposa”, Sara Mariposa Fonseca, whom is still locked up, now in a unit for prisoners with mental illness, these women find the Saint, within themselves, once again.  Mariposa at first rages, then calms down and asks her captors when she learns that the 15 months have been extended to three years, how she is to prepare for life outside if she is not allowed an opportunity to gain work skills? Silence greets this plea as the gears turn, the dispassionate and dehumanizing routine continues  another day, another month, for another year after year. Mariposa has to remind herself that she taught herself to read behind bars; she writes letters in her mind to her son; she recalls her daughter and sings to her—we all walk with her as she retraces her choices that led to prison to determine if she could have made better choices.  Without assistance, without help . . . we are stymied just as she is/was.

Two performances benefit CCWP visit: or call (415) 255-7036 ext. 4. CCWP was founded by women inside as an advocacy vehicle 20 years ago to demand better healthcare, a need that continues to dominate the list. There were members of CCWP at Stagewerx theatre in San Francisco, who led the audience in conversation and testimony. There were also petitions and bills announced that people were asked to support, one a petition signed by women inside “Demanded the restoration of urgent mental health care to people in secured housing units.”  This unit forms the philosophical and actual setting that Mariposa & the Saint’s is based on. Using bricks made from cardboard boxes covered in gray material, the Steele as Mariposa speaks of how when she first lands in solitary confinement, she spends significant time, cleaning her cell.

Mariposa never leaves the cell, except to take a shower (and that is not daily). The food is handed to her through the bars or slot in the door. For company she stands on a chair and talks to a woman in another cell through the air vents. Each letter she receives is first read by the institution represented by the masked uniformed guard. Many times, when one thinks about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the people who run it are absent. And while the masked character (actor Zack Wymore) in uniform has a level of anonymity, he is nonetheless specific enough to hold accountable for its misdeeds and injustice.  “Mariposa and the Saint” personalizes what one hears or reads about regarding civil rights and legal rights for prisoners. After the performance this often inaccessible idea is grounded forever in the body—Sara Mariposa Fonseca’s body as portrayed by Steele-Allen, and in turn the audiences’ – At many points we are one.

When Mariposa tells us about how she gets four more years when she throws water at a nurse or when we see the photo of her daughter whom she never saw after birthing her, a child who does not know her mother’s name – we are changed. This is not a journey for the fearful or for those who love darkness—“Mariposa” is enlightening. It is great CCWP is present literally, because those so moved have a vehicle to join which addresses the inequities faced by Mariposa and other women inside California’s many prisons or places of legal captivity.

Incarcerated women have needs specific to their gender. We see Mariposa bent over in pain after her newborn is taken from her. Bleeding and leaking milk, she finds no solace or support from the institution – which ignores her cries for help.

Sounds really hard to witness? It is, yet, there is humor in the letters and this is translated into the work. Even when Mariposa, 17, a young mother without housing, tries to sell her body to take care of herself and her son, there is a level of honor or integrity involved here that does not go unnoticed.  

I would have liked to know more about what happened here and what happens that lands Mariposa in solitary confinement once her “wife” is released. What happens to the baby birds the two women rescue? Mariposa speaks about dying multiple times, what revives her? Where does the love come from that allows her eyes to open daily?

The prison will not let Steele-Allen into see Mariposa since the play has been written; however, Colby (CCWP) spoke to Sara Mariposa Fonseca recently and shared a message with the audience opening night.

San Francisco Bay Area Performance Schedule:

Sunday, May 10
La Pena Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, $15 advance, $20 at the door, benefit for CCWP; facebook page here: