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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

"More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men ...in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery then."

That's from a sobering piece by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker that, by chance, I read before going to see a revival of Miguel Piñero's prison drama Short Eyes at LATC.

Piñero wrote Short Eyes in 1972 as part of an inmate's playwrighting workshop while locked up in Sing Sing. Producer Joe Papp saw the play and moved it first to the Public Theater and then to Broadway. Piñero went from a cell block to becoming Broadway's first Puerto Rican, or Nuyorican, playwright in less than two years.

To today's audience, steeped in a multiple seasons of HBO's Oz, Piñero's Short Eyes seems all too familiar. We're in the Day Room at Riker's Island, Three tables bolted to the floor serve as demarcations for the color lines. On the right is the 'Rican's' table manned by the Juan, Paco, and Cupcakes. In the left corner the black table with Ice, the young Omar and the resident Muslim, El Raheem. At the middle table - the lone white man, save the guards, Longshoe.

Dropped into this uneasy racial detente is a new white inmate, Clark, who's quickly nicknamed Short Eyes - prison slang for a pedophile.

You can imagine what happens next.

But the plot isn't the reason to go see Urban Theatre Movement's LATC production: it's the marriage between an intimate realistic set and a cast that attacks the language with a brute muscularity.

Rather than fight the quirky architecture of LATC's Theatre 4, set designer Geronimo Guzman embraces the institutional concrete to create the prison's Day Room. He has the audience enter the theater through a shower area with darkly pornographic graffiti that serves as a prologue for the play's sexuality. Once inside the play begins with just the prisoners' voices, surrounding us, taunting a guard. The 99-seat space is so intimate you feel a bit like you're trapped with them - a feeling that's both uncomfortable and thrilling.

While Piñero's poetry is a bit swallowed by the cast's virile enthusiasm, the production manages to capture the playwright's love of language and unapologetic view of life behind bars.

It'd be nice to say that giving voice to our prisons isn't as important as it was in the 70's but the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik reminds us otherwise:

"Over all, there are now more people under "correctional supervision" in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin ... That city of the confined and the controlled,...is now the second largest in the United States."

Short Eyes plays at LATC downtown through March 11.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

(Running time: 2 hours with intermission)

Banner image: (L-R) Donte Wince, Mark Rolston and Chris D'Annunzio in Short Eyes. Photo © Federico Mata

Banner image: (L-R) Donte Wince, Mark Rolston and Chris D'Annunzio in Short Eyes. Photo © Federico Mata


Anthony Byrnes

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