by Wanda Sabir
The play “Every Five Minutes” by Scottish writer Linda McLean is an unique look into the effects of solitary confinement on a man named Mo – recently released after 13 years behind bars. Captured by insurgents, he was tortured, denied contact with family or others outside of his captors.
The effects of this deprivation are one disorientated man whom we meet at his coming out dinner. His dear friends Rachel and Ben (Carrie Paff and Sean San Jose) spend their 13 years getting him free, yet haven’t up to this point been able to see Mo (Rod Gnapp), who has been hiding out with Sara, his wife (actress Mia Tagano).
Once again this gifted playwright has brought work to us that immerses her audience into a world along the margins of society.
Though the playwright did not base this story on any one person behind bars, nationally or internationally, there is so much to remind audiences of current stories, one as recent as two weeks ago in the case of Shaker Aamer, 45, a Saudi citizen who lived in Britain before capture, who is suffering Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The New York Times article states that a new strategy employed by attorneys for captives is to focus on the deteriorating health of the aging prisoners.
Last December a Sudanese prisoner, Ibrahim Othman Ibrahim Idris, “described in court filings as morbidly obese and schizophrenic,” was released, according to the same article.
In another story in August 2013, we read about 34-year-old Nabil Hadjarab, an Algerian man who grew up in France, picked up in a sweep in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 11, 2001, and charged with links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. He was tortured every step of the way, first at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a place that “would quickly become notorious, and make Guantánamo look like a church camp. When Nabil arrived there in January 2002, as one of the first prisoners, there were no walls, only razor-wire cages. In the bitter cold, Nabil was forced to sleep on concrete floors without cover. Food and water were scarce. To and from his frequent interrogations, Nabil was beaten by United States soldiers and dragged up and down concrete stairs. Other prisoners died. After a month in Bagram, Nabil was transferred to a prison at Kandahar” and finally to Guantánamo Bay in January 2002. In three separate hearings he was found innocent of the charges and recommended for release, yet he remains behind bars.
Solitary confinement is topical in America, especially California, with the statewide hunger strikes organized by prisoners at Pelican Bay in protest of the Security Housing Units or SHU. Mo is an in-your-face example of the worst of what’s possible – he hears voices, he hallucinates, he has traumatic flashbacks to the torture. Over dinner, he forgets where he is and at times grows catatonic as footage reels on the theatre wall – where a door lets in a comedic duo, Harpo and Bozo (actors Patrick Alparone and Jomar Tagatac), who invite Mo into their skit – where he is the star of his demise.
Footage shows him in a crowd scene smiling, supposedly – the face is so arbitrary; it is supposed to be him, but is it him? Earlier in flashbacks, we meet the prisoner’s mother, who is unsympathetic to her son as she makes excuses for him to his stepfather, who kicks him with his boots.
The only friend he seems to have is his little sister – they roll down a hill together. The grassy scene video is really vivid and lush.
Ninety minutes without intermission, one wonders how many times can we watch Mo’s attitude shift and change – every five minutes?
Solitary confinement is topical in America, especially California, with the statewide hunger strikes organized by prisoners at Pelican Bay in protest of the Security Housing Units or SHU.
Strangers appear at the door – Mo hears knocking on doors in his head. The unknown is no longer pleasantly looked forward to; rather, it is dreaded. At one point the person on the other side of the door is a Census taker (actress Maggie Mason). Other times it is a bit more sinister, a creepy man with coal. Mo asks him if he is dead.
God even pops by for a visit – the conversation is amusing, as is the puppetry with one of the three pigs. One’s imagination runs as wildly around the cell as Mo’s as he is tortured, then bathed even held by his captors as he loses consciousness. There seems to be an odd attachment between the villains and the subject, evident in conversation heard just before Mo is released.
The shadows stalking Mo while he wakes are as real to us as they are to him. How does he put them to rest? Will he ever be able to put them to rest?
He crouches on the floor – he blanks out – the story starts over again as his friends do not leave even when his behavior is inexplicable and Sara keeps apologizing while Ben shushes his wife over and over again. I don’t realize until late in the play that we are going forward and back in time with Mo. For him, reality, what he knew 13 years ago, has not changed in his mind. Suspended, he is surprised when life is not as he left it.
This is disconcerting to him. Molly (actress Shawna Michelle James), the child he knew as a baby, is grown now. It is hard for him to comprehend the change in her. In fact, her growth is almost his demise – it takes him a while to return to present consciousness.
In an audience talk-back panel following a performance that I participated in at the Magic Theatre, April 9, with Elaine Elinson, author and journalist, and Veeba Dubal, immigration attorney, a question came up: What did he do?
He didn’t have to do anything to be captured. If the government wants him, he is theirs. It is important to not forget those men and women and children behind bars. Mo never knew his wife came to visit him or that his friends were fighting for his release for 13 years. Often this is the case when the mail and other contact with the outside world is limited or censored.
But the reason the fictional character is freed is because his family and friends would not let his name die. The reason why Mumia Abu Jamal was not executed is because of the global mobilization. Others were released for the same reason, former prisoners such as Herman Wallace, Robert H. King, Marilyn Buck and, we hope, others soon, like Patricia Wright at CIW and Albert Woodfox at the David Wade Correctional Center in Homer, Louisiana.
He didn’t have to do anything to be captured. If the government wants him, he is theirs. It is important to not forget those men and women and children behind bars.
For those for whom the idea of prisons and imprisonment is abstract and over there, “Every Five Minutes,” directed by Loretta Greco, might not make you an activist or prison abolitionist, but it will certainly make your hand shake the next time prison expansion is on the ballot – or Three Strikes or realignment, which does not mean releasing prisoners, rather shifting them to other facilities which often are ill-equipped for long term prisoners. And you will think before allowing yet more tax dollars go to fortifying and expanding the prison industrial complex – the New Jim Crow, or slavery.
“Every Five Minutes” is recommended for mature audiences, ages 17 years old and above. There is frontal nudity in the work. The play runs one hour and 30 minutes without intermission.
Radio Interview with playwright
Listen to an interview with the playwright, Linda McLean (she is the third guest at 9 a.m.): http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks/2014/03/20/wandas-picks-radio-special-world-water-day-jazz.
There is a free performance of “Every Five Minutes” at Laney College Saturday, April 19, at 2:30 p.m.; doors open at 2:00 p.m. The play closes Sunday, April 20, at the Magic Theatre in Ft. Mason Center. Though it is great the Magic offers these free plays and conversations afterward at Laney College, the set doesn’t travel so I wonder how the complexity of this drama will translate in a bare stage.
A lot of the work is captured in Hana S. Kim’s lovely, frightening and complex video and projection design. I hope this isn’t left in San Francisco – nor Eric Southern’s set and lighting design or even Sara Huddleston’s sound design. I am almost tempted to attend to see how much more our imaginations are required to work (smile).
At Laney Saturday afternoon there will be an audience talk-back with the actors. Lake Merritt BART is across the street, about 250 feet from Laney College Theatre. The Oakland Museum of California is also across the street. There is metered parking on the street. Bring quarters and/or a credit card or park in the Oakland Museum parking lot. Visit http://magictheatre.org/about/oakland.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at email@example.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.