Frustration is the lifeblood of Marcus Gardley’s characters. His new play, The Box: A Black Comedy, concerns Deadlust, his son Icarus, and their fruitless attempts to break free from a cycle of incarceration which targets men of color. Their story is also part of a broader one, told in accompanying fragments. Other minor characters flit in and out of the play, filling the spaces between scenes with skits saturated with statistics about black and Latino rates of conviction and the causal relationship between race-weighted poverty, crime and imprisonment.
Despite being billed as a black comedy – and a genuinely funny one, at that – a sense of frustration is everywhere: it’s the the undercurrent which seeps into every line and every character. There is Deadlust, the agreeable older man who is eager to play by the rules but thwarted at every turn; Icarus, who is trying desperately to pay off his grandmother’s medical bills, but is hounded by the police; and their fellow inmates: black and Latino men trapped in a prison system designed for them.
Their frustration is also transformative. It converts free men into convicts, leads imprisoned men to attempt revolts, turns optimistic former inmates into bitter parodies of themselves. It doesn’t take power away from those who give in to it, it simply underscores the lack of power they already have.
So it’s no surprise that the characters’ frustration also seeps into the audience. People of color are disproportionately poor; poverty breeds crime; non-whites face higher rates of arrest. Gardley lays out this huge problem, then makes the case that almost no one is interested in solving it.
“If black and brown men were being tossed in the can at alarming rates…wouldn’t there be complaints?” a defense lawyer asks Deadlust, turning down his request to take his son’s case. “Wouldn’t people get up and do something?”
Those not directly affected either deny that it’s happening, or don’t care enough to do anything about it, Gardley writes. Those who are affected are powerless by design. There is almost no political capital to spend on this issue, so it languishes.
Worse is the feeling that Gardley’s message is wasted on his audience, at least as it is now. If the show were to get more traction in the mainstream, it would likely be seen by those who aren’t yet aware of the issues it raises. Until then, its biggest impact will be on those who already understand something, however vague, about what prison truly looks like and how it operates.
Gardley’s fragmented technique, in which disposable characters interrupt the story with monologue, is anything but subtle; in more than one case he turns a speech into an undergrad lecture on racial prison policies. That’s not to say the monologues themselves are clunky. Most are woven seamlessly into the story, proving that it can be done. But Gardley perhaps overdoes it here and there.
Similarly, he seems to give in too often to a compulsion to make every word stand out, muddling his message. And it may be a small point, but the names he chooses for his characters which correspond to their Homeric counterparts – Deadlust for Daedalus, Warden King Minus for King Minos, the MenOfTar for the Minotaur – seem so hastily chosen, as if purely for the sake of making a reference and no other reason, as to be a bit irksome.
Maybe Gardley’s bluntness lacks elegance, but it still gets the point across, repeatedly: prison is a revolving door for many of its residents, most of whom are black or Latino men born into a class with so few options as to make it almost inevitable for them. And if the writing feels clumsy once in a while, its problems are more than compensated for by the formidable performances of all five actors, as directed by Seth Bockley. Each moves fluidly between multiple characters, smoothing down the unpolished dialogue and making it sound more natural than it might otherwise. Their ability to flip a switch between scenes, changing characters flawlessly in the space of a second, is nothing short of exceptional.
That’s not to say Gardley’s style itself is troublesome. Most of the script is literally poetry, flowing and constantly moving, a good fit for the restless, fidgeting characters and their ceaseless frustration. And proving that nothing bites so hard as satire, his use of humor is never cursory – an easy trap to fall into.
The Box deserves a larger audience to be able to spark a discussion largely missing from the mainstream. But in parallel with its characters, and the walls they repeatedly run into, it may be that no one listens.