Review: ‘A Place to Stand’

opened March 3, 2007 at Intersection for the Arts

Poetry, prison fuse as Campo Santo finds `A Place to Stand’
three [1/2] stars Poetic, powerful

Hers is a cry that rings in your ears long after the actual sound ceases.

The soul-deep pain of a mother whose child is taken from her reverberates through every decibel of her scream.

There is much to provoke the eye and the ear in A Place to Stand, a world-premiere performance piece created by Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts from the writings of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Ntozake Shange.

In an impressionistic evening of songs, poetry and emotion about prison and its ripple effects, nothing registers more strongly than Catherine Castellanos’ extraordinary performance as Julia, a Mexican immigrant whose hardscrabble existence is weighted with grief for her imprisoned son, Terrazo (Carols Aguirre).

We see Julia fretting over her boy and his seemingly constant run-ins with the law. Then, in a canny flashback, we see a flustered, angry Julia visiting her husband in jail and bringing her 5-year-old son with her.

The husband doesn’t want his son to see him in such a demeaning state.

“If you don’t want him to see you like this,” Julia barks, “don’t BE like this.”

Though there’s no straight narrative line through A Place to Stand, which opened Sunday at San Francisco’s Intersection, though there are enough fragments of stories to create the illusion of plot.

When we meet Julia, she’s awaiting news of her son’s possible parole, but he is denied once again, and her anger, frustration and sadness pour out in an impassioned monologue that includes her searing scream — the agonizing sound of a mother finally giving up.

That’s one of the most powerful moments in director Sean San Jose’s provocative 70-minute show, which is the first piece of Intersection’s year-long Prison Project — various artistic endeavors aiming to illuminate and address the California Prison System.

In A Place to Stand, which blends Oakland resident Shange’s Liliane with Baca’s autobiography A Place to Stand and his story “Sons of Julia,” we meet a survivor of the prison system, Cyclone (Marc David Pinate, pictured below), who serves as sort of a narrator.

He introduces us to the men in prison (Aguirre and Florentino Gonzales as Coro) and to the women: Savannah Shange (Ntozake’s daughter) as Liliane and Scheherazade Stone as Lily (both women pictured above).

Liliane’s story involves a drug deal gone bad. When the police arrive to make a bust, her boyfriend makes her ingest the cocaine to get rid of it, even though she’s pregnant.

She loses the baby and ends up in jail, but the spirit of her little girl, called Esmereldita (Sara Hernandez), then haunts her imprisoned parents.

All of this could be so much artistic folderol, more relevant to the artists than to the audience, but director San Jose has total command over the tone and the emotional authenticity of the piece.

Music plays an important role in the production. There’s recorded music from Howard Wiley and the Angola Project — covering everything from hymns to riot-fueled jazz — along with a live score created by Wiley and Tommy Shepherd.

Aguirre’s onstage beatboxing adds a compelling percussive layer to the show, and Stone’s remarkable singing — she sings mostly Bob Marley songs — could be a show all by itself. There’s vitality and ache in every beautiful note.

Visual designer Victor Cartagena, working in tandem with lighting designer Ray Oppenheimer, goes for carefully crafted simplicity. There’s a sliding door at the back of the stage that clangs and pounds like a prison door, and when it’s open, life-size video projections blend past and present, freedom and confinement.

Above the action, also on the back wall, is a photograph behind bars, a sweet black-and-white photo of a young Terrazo — or maybe it’s Cyclone or Coro. Whoever’s image is up there, it’s innocence incarnate.

Not all the show’s pieces fall together. Hernandez’s Esmereldita remains a perplexing presence, and Gonzales’ Coro is underutilized.

But the final impression of A Place to Stand remains powerful. The show provokes thought while it stirs emotion. And that mother’s cry echoes without end.

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