by Jona Tarlin · May 2, 2014
“Are you tired of living in a box, running in a race, being in a lower class?”
So begins the opening incantation in Marcus Gardley’s The Box: A Black Comedy inviting us to prison, where you don’t have to pay rent or pick out clothes. Once inside, Greek myths mix with fairytales in a story of a father and son in America’s penal system.
Center circle of a basketball court (sets by Mimi Lien) with a rack of barbells serving as prison bars, Deadlust Jack (Leon Addison Brown) is visited in prison by his son, Icarus Jack (Sheldon Best) asking for money to help his grandmother out with her medical bills. Deadlust is unable to help out from behind bars and sends Icarus off to find the money himself. After Icarus leaves, Deadlust begins to feel remorse for his years away from his family, imprisoned for a non-violent crime, and begins trying to find a way out. His journey through the prison system: parole hearings, racist wardens, and a hunger strike allow Gardley to riff on the idea of prisons as another form of slavery.
This could all be deadly serious, but in Gardley’s hands, and aided by excellent direction from Seth Bockley, the play is hilarious (Mikeah Earnest Jennings as Icarus’ grandmother is especially funny). Five actors create twenty-five roles, blending in elements of a cappella (composed by Imani Uzuri), dance (choreography by Camille A. Brown that is both subtle and startling), and rhyme to create a mix of razor sharp social commentary and ridiculous slapstick that forces engagement with a difficult subject.
These are people who don’t see a lot of options in their lives. Gardley wisely grounds his story in the myth of Icarus and Daedelus as well as the fairytales Little Red Riding Hood and Jack & the Beanstalk to convey that these are timeless stories, ingrained in us to the point where they start to haunt. They don’t provide lessons as much as they do well-trod paths that the characters have to work so hard to deviate from that it’s almost impossible. Icarus and Deadlust know the stereotypes, they try hard to fight them, to not be them, but the system keeps sanding the edges off their square peg to fit it in the hole society has built for them.
This is not a passive play. It’s a play that makes you bring yourself to the table and be present in this moment. It forces you to laugh so hard that you really look, even though what you’re looking at is uncomfortable. It’s a play that demands to entertain you while shaking you awake.
It’s an astonishing work, one that scrubs you clean for a bit. I found myself, afterwards, unable to quite put words together for a little while. I think my brain was still busy processing what I’d just felt. My senses rubbed dull so that they would grow back sharper.