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‘Solitary Man’ play and panel at the Black Rep – pain, survival, resistance

May 1, 2018

by Riva Enteen

On April 21, I finally got to see Charlie Hinton’s “Solitary Man” play at the Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley. It was so much more than a cultural experience. The play was gripping, emotional and real, with jazz trumpet sprinkled in.

The panel powerfully reflected the layers of pain, survival and resistance in the prison movement. And the event, a benefit for the San Francisco Bay View, was a moving tribute to Mary and Willie Ratcliff’s devotion to their invaluable newspaper.

In “Solitary Man,” Fred Johnson plays the part of prisoner Otis Washington and plays jazz trumpet to enhance the emotional intensity the audience feels. Fred knows Otis’ heart because he too is a survivor of prison and solitary confinement. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

Prisoners often say, “We’re not sent to prison FOR punishment; we’re sent to prison AS punishment,” but the designers of the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU (Security Housing Units), the first new prison built as a supermax, planned it to maximize punishment, pain and torture. First, they located it only a few miles from the Oregon border, 800 miles from Southern California, home to most of the men placed there, and a long drive even from the Bay Area. Here, Charlie is relieved to have arrived. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

The play is Charlie’s memoir of his travels to Pelican Bay State Prison to visit a 64-year old lifer he calls Otis Washington, played by Fred Johnson, an actor and jazz trumpeter. When Charlie visited him for the first time, Otis told him, “I’ve been in solitary confinement … more than 30 years now. I would love to shake your hand, Charlie, but I haven’t touched another human being since I got here.”

That was one of the many moments when all the hearts in the room ached. It is a challenge to have a two-man show hold such interest, but I felt everyone sitting at the edge of their seats, because the drama, the emotional pull, was visceral.

Marie Levin is “First Sister” to the movement best known for the 2011-2013 hunger strikes that peaked at 30,000 participants, the largest in history. She’s the sister of Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, one of the four “main reps,” the multi-racial leadership team now targeted for return to solitary confinement. Marie speaks around the country of the heart-wrenching pain of having a loved one in prison, a challenge shared by millions of friends and family of the 2.5 million US prisoners. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

Jose Villarreal, now back home in San Jose since his release last year, hit the ground running and has already established a publishing company and put out a book of his art – including drawings that were published by the Bay View to lift spirits during and after the hunger strikes. He’s joined the POOR family and become a leading Bay Area activist. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

The panel kept the emotional pull of the evening going. Jose Villarreal and Gus Lumumba Edwards both revived my belief in the beauty of the human spirit. With all the efforts to destroy their humanity, they emerged as magnificent human beings, filled with love and a commitment to the struggle.

Jose was released about a year ago after serving 16 years, 10 in solitary confinement, and Lumumba had just been released barely three weeks before the event, after serving 40 years. They both spoke about retaliation to the leaders of the successful California prison hunger strike.

Anne Weills risks her law career daily to challenge the retaliation against her and the prisoner leaders for the lawsuit that ended – or was supposed to end – indefinitely solitary confinement in California. With her co-counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights far away in New York, she stands alone against the wrath of CDCR, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and CCPOA, the guards’ union, said to be the most powerful lobby in the state. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

Lumumba – Gus Lumumba Edwards – another formerly incarcerated artist whose work was published by the Bay View, had been free only two and a half weeks when he surprised everyone by coming to the Black Rep on April 21 and was promptly invited to be on the panel. What an addition! Prison is designed to “break” people, kill their spirit, and those whose spirit is unbroken, like Lumumba and Jose, have volumes of wisdom to share with the world. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

I was familiar with the hunger strike through an interview Marie Levin had done on Flashpoints radio in September 2015. [Interview in “Follow the Money,” Flashpoints interviews by Dennis J. Bernstein, edited by this author, available in June.] Marie’s interview was one of the very few of the 66 interviews that described a victory.

Her brother was one of the leaders of the mass hunger strikes in 2011-2013 and is facing retaliation. I was dismayed to hear of the retaliation against the organizers of the strikes. Yet Marie, with the determination of a warrior, said: “The prison system isn’t broken. It’s doing what it’s designed to do: torture.”

Anne Weills showed the fierce resolve of a devoted lawyer to chip away at the fortress. She was co-counsel with Jules Lobel and the Center for Constitutional Rights on Ashker v. Brown, which ended indefinite solitary confinement in California. She continues to fight for enforcement of the settlement, and you could see her pain at the retaliation faced by leaders of the movement.

Visitors to prisoners in solitary confinement are not allowed to touch each other and are separated by thick Plexiglas. When they say farewell, they touch the glass as a substitute for a handshake or hug. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

Bayview Hunters Point native and artist extraordinaire Malik Seneferu brought his fine young son to the Black Rep and also brought Lumumba, earning warm gratitude from the audience. – Photo: Malaika Kambon

The Ratcliffs. During the questions from the large audience, Mary asked about the role of the SF Bay View in the prisons. Both Jose and Lumumba spoke of how the paper sparks study and discussion groups among the prisoners and is a sacred source of information.

I was sitting directly behind Mary and Willie, and I could feel their pride, the sense of satisfaction that their tireless work brings some comfort and ammunition for the struggle. The event was such a tribute to them, in addition to raising money for the paper.

If Solitary Man comes around again, it’s not to be missed.

Riva Enteen, former National Lawyers Guild program director and a member of the steering committee for the Women’s March on the Pentagon Oct. 20-21, is editor of “Follow the Money,” Flashpoints interviews by Dennis J. Bernstein, foreword by Mumia Abu-Jamal. She can be reached at rivaenteen@gmail.com.

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