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.
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.
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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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.