Radical Theater Performance Subverts Rikers Violence

    Christmas was a week away. The sky was baby blue, but you wouldn’t have known that inside the windowless room where seven Latinx and African American performers ran through scripts on a small stage as a drummer riffed.

    In the corner of a gymnasium momentarily remade into a theater, an incarcerated woman in a beige jumpsuit swept the floor, a corrections officer standing just a few feet away, staring blankly at her. 

    One of the actors on the makeshift stage, with thick raven hair and shimmery eye shadow, was Raquel Almazán—the writer of the play that she and the other women were about to perform for incarcerated people at the women’s facility of New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail. Titled La Paloma Prisoner and directed by Estefanía Fadul, the play is about a beauty pageant for incarcerated Colombian women, one of whom kills men accused of raping girls—but it’s also about the meaning of justice and care in a space of brutality. 

    The script was edited by the writer out of concern for triggering the incarcerated audience, including both cisgender women and transgender men with histories of experiencing sexual violence. Yet it seemed that the attendees were not given a heads-up about the play’s themes—or were even aware of what they’d be witnessing.

    One woman with crimped greying hair, whose name I didn’t catch, chatted with two others a few chairs down from where I was sitting in the second row. She leaned towards me, asking “What’s this play about?”

    Another woman also seemed confused about why she was there in the first place. Apparently, they were simply brought to the gym with no prior notification. The corrections officers chose attendees based on whom they perceived to be “calm,” which the first woman’s friend suggested was valid: “You don’t know how bad it can get in here.” 

    Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances in which the play was brought to Rikers on December 18, 2019, the play was well received by the audience, engaging their lived experiences through a show that brought humor and tragedy into the jail.

    The play deals with heartbreaking subjects, from rape to undergoing an abortion in prison. But someone passing by the dreary gymnasium might not have known it. The audience’s laughter, the drums’ syncopations and the actors’ passionate dialogue enlivened the space.

    “When we’re in a jail, we have to activate it. You’re fighting too much if you are working in realism.”

    The show almost felt campy, with the characters playing on archetypal tropes: an earnest leftist militant, a wise maternal mystic, a feisty 20-something. The performers’ delivery, especially Almazan’s, was potent, ripe with exaggerated inflections and snappy back-and-forths. “It’s very intense, very dramatic,” the woman with crimped hair commented during the discussion that followed.

    As I watched, I wondered whether it was intended as an over-the-top tragicomedy, or whether any entertainment in this bleak space would read as such. 

    Almazan intended the play to be  “larger than life,” she told me after the show. “When we’re in a jail, we have to activate it. You’re fighting too much if you are working in realism.”

    To the bleakness of the space was added subtle hostility. During the performance, corrections officers talked loudly among themselves, and a few walked across the gym, jangling keys and all. Being “over the top,” Almazán said, is necessary to overcome such obstacles. In some ways, campy theater style within a carceral setting becomes a pragmatic strategy.

    Almazan and her cast carved an unexpected space for people housed in the women’s facility to reflect on a story that was both proximal to their everyday lives and other-worldly. One woman present thought she was getting out that day after serving a 16-month sentence for shoplifting; but the Department of Corrections had miscalculated her release date, so she had one more day left. “I’m not happy to be here, but I’m happy I got to see this,” she said. 

    The catharsis of the play was felt on the other side of the performance as well. One of the performers, Brigitte Harris, was incarcerated at Rikers herself years ago. “It felt so good performing,” she said. “I remember when I was in their place, in the audience of plays like this.” 

    During the show, the performers handed each audience member a white rose. One older woman in a green suit closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. Later she brushed the petals across her cheek. Another threaded the flower stem through the hairband binding her tight bun. 

    “It’s an act of love. We believe in the work and we believe in you,” said Marilyn Torres, the actor playing Loba, the older matriarchal oracle, during the cast’s discussion with the audience. 

    After the half-hour performance and discussion of similar length, the incarcerated folks were escorted back to the housing unit. As they were patted down, a corrections officer took back the white roses, each one thrown into the garbage.

    Photograph of the cast of La Paloma outside the bridge connecting the Bronx to Rikers Island by Filter.

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