A Sad and Exuberant Take on Life Behind Bars

The Box is a play about the prison system — but "play" doesn't do it justice. It's a poem. A fairy tale. A Greek myth. 

Especially the last. Icarus, a young, black man of the projects, needs money to help his grandmother pay her medical bills. So he seeks help from his imprisoned father Deadlust (Daedalus, get it?). The Three Fates become the prison board. There's even a Minotaur: it's the mental destruction that happens in solitary confinement.

But the story doesn't matter, not really. Playwright Marcus Gardley is not interested in narrative here. Instead, he is focused on a message: the prison system is modern slavery. Gardley uses densely layered allusions from pop culture, history, headlines and his own interviews of prisoners to create a vivid, muscular work that is sly and at heart, deeply sad.

That sounds grim, but The Box, told mostly in rhyme and song and explosive movement (thanks to choreographer Camille A. Brown), is anything but. In the hands of director Seth Bockley, it's exuberant, at times almost joyful, and wickedly funny.

Gardley uses satire like a shiv. He mocks the idea that prison is rehabilitative and pokes fun at the white people who think they are doing the prisoners a kindness by overseeing them with semi-benevolent paternalism. There are magic beans and a Nelly song sung like a chain-gang dirge. There's the guardian of the River Styx who rows himself around in a yellow industrial mopping bucket. When the prisoners complain of overcrowding, they're told, "Think skinny."

Five men play over a dozen characters, from a dirty-mouthed cow to a batty grandmother to a good-ole-boy prison warden to a kid who is just trying to do the best he can. All of them are trapped in the labyrinth of the U.S. Justice system — once they get in, they can't find their way out. Instead, they fight back and are punished, or submit and lose themselves.

And yet, by the end, there is transcendence. One character finds his wings and, defying the system that grinds others into dust, he flies.