‘State of Incarceration’: Locked Up, and a Little Locked Out

Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), "State of Incarceration." Photo: Anne Maike Mertens

You walk down a hallway at Los Angeles Theatre Center and into a large, brightly lit room. But where do you sit?

Painted black wooden boxes line a wall and row on row of metal bunk beds with thin, tightly tucked blankets confront you.  You file in with others and some climb to a top bunk — several are already occupied by men and women in white T-shirts and jeans. The cast, maybe? A white woman with long blond hair in a ponytail lies on her back. An African-American man with a shiny bald head stares blankly at the ceiling, cracking his knuckles one by one.

At State of Incarceration, you become an inmate in a California prison. The play, which the ensemble has been performing for a year, mostly at community centers, is one in a series of productions created by the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s incarceration project, composed of performers living and working in Skid Row. The goal, the theater company says, is to “examine the personal and social costs of incarceration.” Pressing issues for prisoners — violence, mental health, recreation, for instance — are explored through the monologues and interactions between characters.

California has one of the largest prison populations in the United States. With about double the inmates in a prison system designed to hold 80,000, the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the state to end overcrowding. When released, about one out of every three parolees released to Los Angeles settle in Skid Row, in a part of the city’s downtown.

As a concept, State of Incarceration is intriguing, but the production is a mixed bag. It begins with introductions that offer only talking heads in a space that promises action.  It has haunting musical melodies like the “History of Incarceration” song, with voices that blend as in a spiritual: This history is like used up water to me, it flows in my veins, in my blood, in my community. A prisoner paces as he anticipates his time “in the hole.” He repeats the phrase, a mantra: “I walk. I sit. I look. I think.” The production is punctuated with humor, as prisoners and guards exchange jokes and read each other’s minds:  “I think you know that I know,” says a prisoner; a guard responds: “I know you know…”

The pacing is slow; stretches of silence — the tedium of incarceration? — go on. And on.  Some of the performers, like Ronald Walker, who plays Pretty Ronnie, shift between different roles as prisoner or prison guard in a fluid way. Others are not as skilled, and further stymied by a script that should be more compelling.

Tensions spring up here and there, but they’re not the driver of State of Incarceration; the play reflects different facets of prison life that include more than a little camaraderie. The play works in making you think about, and feel, prison life, and understand that a community – even a forced community – is still a community, with the same dynamics. As for theatrical dynamism, the play could use a boost.

State of Incarceration. Radar L.A. Through Sat, June 18. 213-628-2772.

Laura Spencer

Laura Spencer reports on the arts for Kansas City's NPR member station, KCUR.

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  1. Henriette says:

    Hi Laura > we have developed the play over a year, performing small section in different venues on Skid Row, like LA CAN, the Central City Church and at Johna Project but we never performed in community centers. We performed State of Incarceration in Parolee re-entree programs, at the BOX gallery in Chinatown, where it also was an installation, and at Highways Performance space.