Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Prisons" by Shanique S. Scott @ La Peña Cultural Center, August 22-23, 2008

this is a draft

When I walked into the theatre I wasn’t aware that I knew the playwright/actress; however, when she came out of the dressing room, I immediately recognized the wonderful actress, Shanique S. Scott, whom I’d met on stage a almost a year ago in the stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s "The Bluest Eye" at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco. Cast as "Pecola," in the story, Scott was so invested in the play, she said it took her months to come back into her own skin afterwards.

She and other cast members, attended a Maafa Issues Forum on Violence in the Home, that October 2007, where I wondered when I saw her out of character what was going on with her when I saw Scott at the West Oakland BART where she was present, yet emotionally aloof. After seeing "Prisons," now I know...or at least I know a little more.

"I was getting raped on stage each week," she said with a slight laugh Saturday evening, closing night at La Pena. We spoke for a minute about the dark place some characters occupy, which can trap an artist long after the show is over.

The character in "Prisons" is one Scott knows intimately since she is based on the playwright's life experiences. This intimacy and the process which brought this story to stage after ten years, is one that allows the actress to be a bit more present; however, she still seems to be developing an escape plan--doors opened wider, but not free yet.

In Prisons we see a young girl trapped in circumstances beyond her control. Labeled stupid or different, Shanique is placed in special education classes after school psychologists notice that she plays differently….Mom is jealous of her daughter. Calls her names, belittles her…Shanique writes a suicide note. Her mother ridicules everything Shanique does, even her cries for help; she even says once in an angry moment that she should have gotten rid of her. From a mother who stays away from the home for days at a time, to a dad who loves her, but is an alcoholic, to a grandmother whose apathy means she is not an ally for her grandchildren against their single parent: her daughter-- when the police pick her up and the kids are alone… the kids are on their own. We see how much they are on their own when they try to awaken their mom's boyfriend from a drunken stupor and he never stirs.

There are some holes in the story and it jumps sometimes. For instance, I’m not quite clear what happens that makes the state remove Shanique from her home and put her in the group home, the first of many, we're told. The script doesn't tell the audience what happens to Shanique’s older brother except that he is accepted into a university on a full scholarship.

The metaphors in "Prisons" are plentiful: several times in the play which is set on a stark landscape, no props just directional lighting and one riser to indicate the levels of consciousness, the changing seasons and Shanique’s maturation, not to mention the title: "Prisons" ala Plato, maybe?

This metaphysical journey is assisted by the physicality of the piece: the actress uses the entire stage--moving between the stairs, to center stage. She is also great as other members of the ensemble--these shifts in persona are complete and believable. One such moment, that is, shift in consciousness occurs when Shanique is locked out of the house and she calls up to her mother to throw down the key, her mother never does, no matter how many times she asks—she is locked out. Locked out both physically and emotionally from her mother's life.

Since the perspective is Shanique’s, we never learn what’s going on with the mother—something has to have happened to her for her to treat her children the way she does. She still speaks to her mother, Shanique's grandmother, yet we never see Grandmother take Shanique or her brother out for the day. There is something hinted at when Prisons takes us into the church where one set of cousins, evict Shanique's grandmother's family out. Shanique's side of the family are darker complexioned, thus the eviction, yet it seems as if the stigma is deeper than skin color. In any case, the family no longer has a spiritual home.

The richness of the piece lies in Shanique’s world, flawed and incomplete as it is. After all she is just a child stuck in a home where she is treated like an alien. Only her dad seems to love her. The characters on the street where the child lives, in the school yard and even in her mother’s bed, are priceless. Shanique’s world is brutal, one she hyperventilates through…her teachers concerned with her life and how she is making it, while her elder brother noticing her just enough to give her a few survival tools: one, how to fight, the other, information about a life beyond the window Shanique looks out of onto despair—a window her mother dared her to leap from when she found the suicide note.

“You’re going to hell,” she told her daughter, “unless you can pray for forgiveness before you hit the ground.” Shanique who believes in God, didn’t leap from the window. There are so many similarities between the Shanique character and the Pecola character in The Bluest Eye. Pecola was sexually abused and treated harshly by her mother, until the repeated rapes and her mother’s disbelief drive the child crazy. Like Shanique, Pecola also had an opportunity to get away, and live elsewhere. While her family’s home was repaired after a fire, Pecola lived with another family, with two girls with parents who love them. The girls love Pecola and wanted to help her, as did the parents, but when she returned home, it was hard for them to intercede on her behalf.

In Shanique’s world, perhaps all the attention through the years and labels and attention, then placement in the group home kept her on certain lists so that she was eligible to go to the camp where she finally could be a child and let go of the pain she’d been lugging around most, if not all of her life. This is another area of the work which isn't quite clear.

The metaphor evoked when her mother opened the window --to JUMP, from their multiple storied apartment and the subsequent challenge at camp, to JUMP into the icy crisp cool water…were the same, yet different.

To jump into the water at camp was to trust and into loving and kind hands of friends; to jump from the window was into a world where below was just more of the same: pain and suffering. This dilemma threatened to kept the child terrified, stuck on the diving board— for life. Shanique needed assurance that there was water in the pool, and at camp, the playwright explained later in the Q&A, that the kids and staff at the camp, kept inviting her to join them in the icy cold morning baths, on bike rides…where she had a collision and injured her head and they took care of her. They earned her trust and she jumped. Yet it took a while. Her repeated calls to the group home went unanswered when she asked them to let her come home. Her one, friend told her to enjoy her time away, that no one missed her. And so after a month, Shanique settles into to her good fortune and well JUMPS. It's unknown territory--loving kindness, but like most human beings, she adapts.

For Pecola in the Bluest Eye, the issue was also love and acceptance. It’s hard for a child to live in a home where no one loves her. In Shanique’s home the issue was the same, love and acceptance. However, unlike Pecola, Shanique does learn to accept herself, to embrace her gifts which were impersonations—and to ignore the labels applied to her like dumb and stupid, which she says, she thought was her name, her brother called her this so often.

Prisons is a story of self-love and healing, it is also a story of a broken family and the reason why the interventions didn’t work because the child was the symptom. The parent is where the treatment should have started. Shanique’s mom was angry and bitter. We never learn why, but we see the result of her rage and this is her daughter, Shanique, the child she dangles out the window and threatens to drop and she does drop her over and over again...because her fingers are slippery; she can barely hold on to herself…keep herself from slipping off the edge into an abyss….

From the little we hear about Shanique’s grandmother, the inability to love oneself and by extension one's children, seems to be a legacy passed on from mother to child. Unlike, the characters in The Known World, a novel by Edward P. Jones, Shanique and her brother leave the world they know because they are given a chance to meet other people, see other places. If just in a college brochure, Shanique knows there are places with trees and large fresh bodies of water…beautiful places, her mother probably couldn’t imagine--all she has to do is study hard and she can get away. So Shanique and her brother have options, options available but not taken by their mother. We see Shanique’s mother given opportunities…for therapy, for educational support, for help with her daughter. We hear her bragging to her mother on the phone how she beat up this social worker or that social worker. Maybe Shanique’s mother’s "known world" is larger than the one she chooses to live in, so she remains in prison, while her kids get out. Ultimately, the prison cell is unlocked and those who remain inside are there by choice.

Toni Morrison’s “Pecola,” escapes also-- into insanity; Shanique finds more healthy ways to cope—basketball practice, studying, her writing, college, an acting career. The playwright said she has a 30 minute excerpt she does of the work, “Prisons” for kids in group homes and foster care. This story reminds me of the art show that just closed last week at the San Francisco Main Library about kids in foster care here in the San Francisco Bay Area (see archives August 23, 2008). No kid wants to grow up in foster care. No kid wants to grow up in a group home, but for the children who find themselves there, it’s our government’s legal responsibility to do more to make certain that they are treated with love until they find permanent homes.


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