In an unnamed house of detention in 1975, the daily rumblings of the prison’s recreation room slowly come to life. Three guards run the cellbock, Sergeant Morrison (Daniel Zornes), Mr. Brown (Daryl Anthony Harper) and Mr. Nett (Cris D’Annunzio) with Nett being the most hands-on of the trio. He assigns the work detail and serves out discipline when necessary.
Incarcerated for a rainbow of offenses the group of surly prisoners engages in lively interactions and debate, but ultimately divide neatly down race lines.
In the Rican side of the room, the three Latino inmates cuddle with cards and chess. Cupcakes (Matias Panco) is a pretty boy in short pants who is expecting to do very little time for his petty crimes. He is the object of ridicule for being so “pretty” and is constantly proclaiming his manliness to the other more macho inmates. Paco (Jason Manuel Olazabal) is the hardened criminal with well-hidden, yet genuine romantic intentions towards Cupcakes. Finally there is even-tempered Juan (David Santana), a man with clear street smarts whose mind and ambition is beyond the bars that he currently resides behind.
Omar (Miguel Amenyinu) is the class clown of the day room, following the lead of whom ever seems to be the most powerful man in the room at the time. His allegiances are fluid but his knows the real place of safety is among the other Black inmates. Ice (Carl Crudup) is the middle-aged, career crackhead that has accepted his life of incarceration and mines the life inside for the all its hidden small pleasures. El Raheem (Donte Wince) is the voice of Ali incarnate and the ever-present reminder that the first evil is the White devil.
The lone White inmate Longshoe (Mark Rolston) holds his own in the day room and commands the respect of the other groups. The older biker is formidable in stature and presence, welcoming confrontation from anyone because it ultimately will mean respect.
The motley crew of convicts enjoys a few hours outside of their cells, and engages an hours-long dance of big house politics, until a new inmate is added to the bunch. Clark (Matthew Jaeger) seems like the typical lily-white college boy, a deer in headlights that’s found himself behind bars. From the severe ass-kicked dealt out by Mr. Nett, the inmates do not take long to figure out that Clark is a Short Eyes, a child molester. Suddenly, the gang in the day room all has a common target for their contempt.
Only Juan has the opportunity to gleam Clark’s side of the accusation; even in his disguise, Juan can’t bring himself to despise Clark as lower than human. Juan is ridiculed and confronted for his sympathy for the accused molester, but will he risk his own safety and standing among the other inmates in to try and protect Clark, who’s innocence is still in question.
Short Eyes has no clear protagonist, it is a series of heated interactions and colorful monologues, rolling out at a break-neck pace, riding on a wave of erratic chaos. The company of actors, the Urban Theatre Movement, gives a terrific group performance that blows through two acts of humor and danger and unexpected depth. There is a surprising amount of humor in this gritty prison drama and a section in the second act that is completely in Spanish – but don’t be daunted, the action of the scene translates perfectly. The energy and chemistry of this entire ensemble is an exciting and inspiring machine to behold in action. Well Done.
Similarly, a piece entitled Short Eyes connotes a story surrounding that particular character, when in fact the appearance of Clark is simply the inciting incident. The title seems to be subtler than that, perhaps a metaphor for shortsightedness. There is more than one occasion when the decision to take part in the abuse of Clark is a test of each inmates humanity. A choice to be caught up in mob mentality is in fact a choice for both inmates and prison guards. Short Eyes examines the difficulty of being a freethinking person, of being a person who stands by one’s own personal code of ethic in the face of peer pressure and the absence of consequences. You can’t truly be imprisoned if your mind is free.
The Urban Theatre Movement extends its run of Short Eyes to through March 11, 2012 at:
Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 S. Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Photo Credit: Federico Mata