Last Tuesday night, I ventured into Brooklyn to see The Box: A Black Comedy by Marcus Gardley, produced by The Foundry Theatre at the Irondale Center. There, I had the rare experience, in my world of New York theater, of distinctly feeling my place as a minority in relation to the cultural world of the play. There were jokes I didn’t get, while others laughed loudly around me. Meanwhile, I felt that I had to monitor my own reactions, as I was unsure when it was appropriate to laugh or sigh, afraid I would be judged because I wasn’t part of the racial or socioeconomic community of which this play was most reflective. I was frustrated by my feelings of discomfort, because they were clearly stemming from my own insecurities about how to approach the racial inequities that are a daily reality in the United States.
But let me take a step back, and give you a taste of the production itself, which was a sheer delight. Narratively, it tells the story of a father, Deadlust, and his son, Icarus, who can never unite because one or the other is stuck in jail. The set was minimal, but extremely effective; my favorite feature was the whimsical cardboard houses that lit up from inside, used to represent housing projects (very similar to those used in the Foundry’s production of The Good Person of Szechwan at The Public last fall). The script was written in a rhyming verse so mellifluous that the audience almost immediately slips into the rhythm of the play, and forgets that the characters are addressing each other in rhyme. Gardley incorporated several musical moments, both with beat-boxing and rapping and even, in the final beat of the play, a song evocative of a slave hymnal, sung by men on their knees in a prison chain gang, whose last word is, “Freedom!” before the stage cuts to black.
The rhythm of the play partners well with the incorporation of numerous fairy-tale elements: the cops in the projects are called “wolves,” Icarus’ interaction with his grandmother on her deathbed is intensely akin to Little Red Riding Hood’s, and when Icarus plants his “magic weed,” a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-esque vine grows that Icarus climbs to speak with his ancestors. These fairy tale elements effectively lightened the tone from overwhelmingly hopeless to manageably tragic. In addition, the incorporation of the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus through the playwright’s masterful sleight of hand was ingenious, with mentions of what a labyrinth the prison is, and how only Deadlust knew the one secret opening in the construction to climb up and get a face full of sun. Naturally, he teaches his son where to find this bright spot, and warns him to avoid the Men of Tar (Minotaur) who will corrupt his mind, if he lets them, in solitary confinement.
Gardley’s allusions were not limited to fairy tales and mythology, however. I held my breath at the overt references to Trayvon Martin, both encouraged and surprised to see his life already memorialized on stage. Less overt, but equally connected to contemporary culture, was the depiction of the unimaginable isolation of solitary confinement, most recently made accessible to audiences unfamiliar with the prison system by the hit Netflix television series, “Orange is the New Black.” Other elements of the evening further ushered the audience into the world of the play, as well, including the library-style dated stamp on the hand to indicate admission, perhaps intentionally akin to the assignment of a prison number. For the most part, the characters existed in their own world of the play, conversing with each other, but the moments when they tore down the fourth wall were striking. For example, during Icarus’ arrest, he appeals to the audience, asking them if they’re just going to sit there, or if they won’t get up and do something. In addition, near the end of the play, one of the inmates delivers a monologue petitioning for the elimination of the word “nigger” from our vocabulary, in all thirteen of its pronounced variations. The audience nearly broke out into applause when he concluded his speech, we were so eager to agree and to demonstrate our sympathy.
Despite my initial uncertainty about my role as an audience member, as the play progressed, I quickly developed that fidgety and uncomfortable feeling that prompts me to create change, to get out there and do something about this obvious and tremendous injustice that was being presented to me. The terror and paranoia of contemporary black male existence in the United States was exquisitely captured in this piece. These boys had no room for adolescent mistakes; their choice architecture was radically different than my own, growing up as a white middle-class girl in rural Connecticut. Instead of having the mental and physical space to self-define their paths, these men were bombarded by blatant, institutionalized prejudice and injustice from the moment they stepped out onto the street. A perfect example was the depiction of the characters’ relationship to marijuana. Where I grew up, for white middle-class kids, smoking weed provided the luxury of escape from the quotidian, whereas for the characters in the play, that form of escape was more of a survival mechanism. It wasn’t a fun after-school activity, to tune out from the boring or stressful routines of adolescence; instead, it was portrayed as an almost necessary form of self-medication, to deflect the pressures and oppressions of daily life. (I just finished reading High Price, by Dr. Carl Hart, a book exploring the social prejudices behind drug policy in the United States, which I can’t recommend highly enough, if you’re interested in this topic.) My personal ignorance was certainly caught in the headlights as I reacted to this piece, but constructively so; I was eager to understand these disparities that I will never personally experience because of my race and gender. The Box provided an opportunity to feel the injustice of the treatment of black men in the United States in a way that I never have before.
Although there is so much more to this piece than the journey of self-interrogation that it sent me on, I want to dwell a moment longer on the unique and important experience I had as an audience member. Someone once said to me that you can only feel guilty for the things for which you take responsibility. If, objectively, I am not responsible for the entrenched structural oppression of the incarceration system here in the United States, is it my responsibility to do something about it? Can I truly understand a system of oppression that I have not lived? Even if the answer is no, I can, however, assume responsibility for the type of country that I want to live in, and pick the battles that are worth fighting.
And yet at The Box, no matter who you are as an audience member, you are granted admission to the perspective of these black men, living in a present day US city, thanks to Gardley’s intensely accessible writing. This is the story of a father and son whose relationship is mutilated by the severity of the prison system. As Icarus’ manifesto suggests, the only way to change this misaligned practice of incarcerating the impoverished who lack opportunities, is to speak up, loudly and repeatedly. Like in any relationship, talking about problems is difficult, but ultimately, it makes you stronger.
Not only do I urge you to see The Box: A Black Comedy, running through May 11 at the Irondale Center, but I also want to recommend the Foundry Theatre’s series of talks in May about the criminal justice system, called Foundry Dialogues. I’ll close with a few statistics from The Box’s program: “With 5% of the world’s population, the US has 25% of its prisoners. One in 100 adults in the US is now incarcerated; one in 30 is under some form of correctional supervision. One in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 30 is incarcerated.”