Review by Tita Anntares*
As Shared Sentences opens, six men and women go through the intrusive, humiliating security checks for entering the visitor’s area of a prison. Latino, Black, White – but one of the two White women does not pass the check for residue of illegal drugs on her hands. A guard’s voice sends her off to an official as she berates herself. Lights shift. We meet the other five as they gather for their regular support group for people with incarcerated friends and family members. Soon the sixth arrives, a newcomer, desperate and disruptive.
Throughout the 95-minute play, we get to know the members of this group, thrown together by the arrests and conviction of their loved ones. Each with a very different economic, educational and ethnic background and personality. Each is reacting differently to the impact of their imprisoned family member or friend on their own lives. Over time, as they come together every two weeks, they clash, sometimes hurting or angering each other. But over time, they develop such a strong commitment to each other that they force themselves to turn their emotional outbursts and attacks on each other into deep support for each other’s struggle to try to live as fully as possible despite the emotional chains that keep them hooked by love, guilt or sense of responsibility to the prisoner who has impacted their life. Plays involving crime and prison often peak with an angry crisis and resulting violent climax – a physical attack, gunshot, knifing, whatever shows a story going all the way. Sometimes a more peaceful transformation at the final resolution; or not. Shared Sentences, however, delivers a much more dramatic and lasting experience for the audience: the arc of the story starts with the trapped desperation of people whose loved ones have broken trust and are locked in prison — but then, instead of building up to predictable violent interactions, the story shocks us with the quiet power of emotionally damaged people to go beyond conflicts to give each other deeply needed compassion, respect, and humanity.
The play is structured as a series of short scenes, beginning with the arrival of a new person checking out the group. With just a shift in lighting, we move from one meeting to another or see each person trying to deal with their loved one in prison or with family members impacted on the outside. These scenes build the tension of the play as we see each person dealing with tough situations, building to a series of interrelated crises and climaxes until each person in their own way starts to free themselves -and each other – for their own life, without losing their compassion. In a final resolution, someone is missing from a celebration party for Barbara, the woman who founded and leads the group. She has overcome her daughter’s refusal to speak with her after their father/husband was convicted of murder. Her daughter’s son has had an “incident” and asks for her mother after years of never even answering her phone calls. Barbara quickly takes a plane to be with her daughter. As the group is trying to celebrate their leader without their leader, they hear a knock on the door – and we hear the voice of a new person in need of the group… just as the story began with a newcomer trying to find support.
The characters are very distinct, poised for conflicts with each other (casting by Calleri Jensen Davis Casting): We meet the five who pass inspection, each character’s clothing giving clues to their place in the outside world (costumes by Theresa Squire): Tee, a fun-loving young person in transition from woman to man whose addict mother is in and out of prison (played by Nikomeh Anderson); Sebastian, an older warm Latino man who loves music and is trying to protect his incarcerated younger brother (played by David Anzuelo); Celeste, a young Latino woman who is beautiful, high-heeled, well-dressed but judgmental as she deals with her imprisoned father (played by Yadira de la Riva); Harold, an older kind, conservative black man whose wife has been released after ten years but, instead of the joyful reunion he expected as he stayed faithful to her, he is dealing with her emotional damaged (played by Raphael Nash Thompson); and Barbara, the founder of the group, an older suburban woman whose abusive husband proudly shot his father (played by Glynis Bell.) And now there is the newcomer – Olivia, a privileged white woman who tries to give her imprisoned lover whatever he calls her to request, sometimes several times a day (played by Emily Joy Weiner, the playwright.)
Each actor brings out the fullness of their character, their attempts to seem okay, and, underneath the surface, their desire -or need – to stay connected to their loved one in conflict with their longing – or need – to live a full life. The dialogue is fast, light, often humorous, and sometimes deeply revealing of the unspoken pain each person harbors – a pain that bursts out in different ways. And sometimes minimalist in a way that needs no extra words – for example, after the Latino woman has dissed the visiting white woman for being too privileged to have a valid opinion about anything involving imprisonment, she sees a photo of the newcomer’s boyfriend — her shocked comment “I thought he was white!” is not just funny in a reverse racist way but also changes their relationship from antagonism to grudging respect and support.
The design elements (by Tanya Orellana) are very simple – most of the action takes place in an almost empty room, with a few chairs, a coffee and snacks table, a wastebasket, and some walls that give a sense of being in a meeting room in a prison. Lighting (by Amina Alexander) creates shifts in place when a character addresses their incarcerated family member or friend in a short monologue, or some group members meet at the older Latino man’s home as they become friends. Sound (by Lindsay Jones) is used to give a sense of the trapped threats of being in a prison, even when just a visitor
Now on my Wishlist: Funding for a film of this production by foundations, organizations, and government agencies for meetings of relatives of prisoners around the country, including guidelines for talkbacks on how to support incarcerated friends and family without destroying one’s own life. Maybe even use of the film with inmates plus talk back about how they can support friends and family on the outside. Again: with guidelines for the talk-backs so they handle emotional issues well. I think this is possible based on my volunteer work for an inmate who was falsely accused of violence and with the Jails Action Coalition that is trying to reduce Rikers jail’s use of solitary — which has led to the deaths of inmates who, at Rikers, have not yet been judged as guilty.
Catch an R train to 8th Street and walk 4 blocks to 150 First Avenue and 9th Street to see the show from October 26 until November 12: at the “122 Community Center” – 2nd-floor theater at 150 First Ave. Playing through November 12, 2022
*Review by Tita Anntares, www.ammtares.com and https://newplayexchange.org/users/6479/tita-anntares