“Mariposa and the Saint” combines advocacy and art

by Ashia Ajani 

The Saybrook Underbrook Theater is pitch black. A light slowly brightens up the stage, and a woman in white prison scrubs labeled “SHU” (Security Housing Unit) looks up at a screen. The screen reads: “Mariposa was sentenced to 15 months in solitary confinement for being in possession of tweezers.” From there, the play begins.

The play Mariposa and the Saint is transcribed entirely through letters exchanged between an inmate, Mariposa, and her friend. It touches on heartbreaking topics such as the origins of Mariposa, the pressures of solitary confinement, and the “faceless machine” that is the prison industrial complex.

A Corrections Officer, who brings Mariposa food and takes her letters, does not speak, but wears a mask to represent this “faceless machine.” Mariposa herself says, “she doesn’t know what individual person to be mad at” for her situation.  A group reading of a poem, as well as other interactions with the audience, bring the audience closer to the story.

Slides in the background relay information about Mariposa’s life to the audience, showing pictures of her daughter, who Mariposa hasn’t seen since she was one week old. The play, though not a musical, uses music to amplify the feelings of the prisoner.

Magic realism plays a very important role in the show, as well as Mariposa’s constant correspondence with “the Saint”: a religious figure who Mariposa turns to for guidance. The screams and sorrow of other inmates in solitary confinement bring Mariposa to ache for her children, and then later for “stranger things,” such as the feeling of grass under her toes.

Mariposa ends up spending the final year of her sentence in solitary confinement due to a technicality. She was supposed to be released June 15th, 2014, but four more years were added to her sentence for throwing a cup of water at a male nurse. She will not get out of incarceration until 2018, when her son, Will, is twenty-one and her daughter, Annabella, is sixteen.

Julia Steele Allen, the actress who plays Mariposa, is a former volunteer for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). She corresponded with Mariposa even before Mariposa’s transfer to solitary confinement. The two women began writing the play in 2012, and the first draft of the play was produced in June 2013. Mariposa and the Saint is on tour with the intent of bringing the horrible conditions of women’s prisons to state legislators’ attention, hoping to limit or end the use of solitary confinement.

After each performance, there is a panel discussion with the audience. One audience member was previously incarcerated and placed in solitary confinement and talked about his experience transferring back to the “real world” and commented on how previously incarcerated people are “ill prepared to return back to society.”

Here at Yale, Allen partnered with the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP), a student-run social justice organization that offers outreach to imprisoned people and promotes dialogue around issues about mass incarceration.

The discussion focused on Allen’s process, the issues surrounding solitary confinement, and Yale’s involvement in prison development. Yale is focused on advocating for prison reform at a local and state level. They are currently trying to raise the juvenile jurisdiction age in Connecticut to twenty-one.

After the play, audience members were encouraged to write postcards to Mariposa. During the talk with Allen, she mentioned that Mariposa initially did not want her name revealed in the play. In the end, audience members get an intimate look at the life of Mariposa, who was born Sara Fonseca and who is a member of the Mi’Wok Tribe of Northern California. Today, she advocates for the rights of incarcerated women.

Signatures are welcome to the Yale Prison Divestment Open Letter