Originally from San Francisco, Haley Slamon is a recent transplant to the Chicago area. When she is not auditioning for shows, Haley enjoys seeing theater that showcases diverse and underrepresented groups that she identifies with (namely queer, plus sized women), knitting, playing piano or guitar, and binge-watching Netflix. She is proud to be helping PerformInk nurture the wonderful companies that are attempting to improve the art-form and their communities by creating engaging, diverse, and meaningful performances.
Pictured: Monette McLin, Aaron Sanchez, Evie Riojas and Daniel Shtivelberg. Photo by Evan Hanover.
By Haley Slamon
Any pop song or romantic comedy will tell you that love is all you need, but in the real world, love is often not enough. It is not enough to love the work you do at your job if your boss makes that work impossible. It is not enough to love someone if that person doesn’t love you back, or if you can’t be together for any number of reasons. Prison, for example. This is one of the themes that The New Colony’s new work PUNK explores, as it rips apart the prison industrial complex and the treatment of queer inmates in America.
Set in the GBT (gay bisexual transgender) unit of an all-male maximum security prison, PUNK follows the stories of four people in the block: Ms. Olivia (Monette McLin), a corrections officer trying to stop the shutdown of her GBT unit by the prison warden, Glenn (Kyle Encinas), a timid and depressed inmate who was arrested for his relationship with a 15 year old, Sonya (Evie Riojas), a trans woman fighting for the prison to recognize her gender identity, and Georgia (Aaron Sanchez), a gay former prostitute on the verge of his parole hearing. Their comparatively mundane routines are turned upside-down when, in order to prevent drastic cuts to the GBT department’s budget, Ms. Oliva must transfer Travis (Daniel Shtivelberg), an inmate convicted of beating a gay man to death with a baseball bat, into the GBT unit. The five attempt to warily coexist together, until further cuts from higher ups and discoveries about the outside world throw the whole unit into chaos, and force all five of them ask themselves if there are any good people in the prison system, and if anyone ever truly gets out.
Even as the play takes place in a proverbial sanctuary from the realest dangers of a maximum security prison, Michael Allen Harris’ writing takes a hard look at the system and the problems that run throughout it. Of course, it is mentioned quite a few times that queer prisoners are more likely to be assaulted or killed by other inmates, but there are other problems that the prisoners bring up in pithy conversation that never feels preachy or too statistical. The ideas of violence against inmates who’ve committed sexual crimes, officer corruption, the hardships of adhering to parole, being hired, and high rates of re-incarceration, are all addressed in conversations that are centered around the characters in the show dealing with these problems.
These fast-paced, usually two-person interactions communicate the information about these topics better than any lesson could, because the characters struggles are compelling, and the dialogue offers just enough sassy humor to lift the mood of the content. This, paired with an easel at the door of the house that lists prison vocabulary, the statistics that we have, and why those statistics are unreliable, are a perfect resource for audience members who are interested to learn more without working too hard, and that balance is the perfect example of activist theatre done right.
If it weren’t enough that this show captures all the essential issues of the American prison-industrial complex and condenses them into a two-and-a-half-hour dramedy, the acting that has to back up the content is absolutely stellar. What starts as your typical group of campy queer bitches and their token sassy black woman quickly morphs into a cast of completely realized characters, with faults, weaknesses, and backstories that will tear you apart and keep you glued to the action. Subtleties like Riojas’s practically 4th wall breaking eyerolls or Shtivelberg’s crazy stare burning directly into your soul are treasures, and the deliveries of some of the best written lines are enough to make the whole audience either burst out laughing (“If they use spit as lube, they don’t really love you”) or go completely silent (“We never really loved each other. We loved the things we promised each other”). Mixing these performances with just a touch of the truth that inspires gay stereotypes creates real people who can be a multitude of things: humorous, criminal, violent, sincere, and continuously something more than simply meets the eye.
This idea of changeability is mimicked in Eleanor Kahn’s set, which starts with all the uniformity of a prison: a blue slate box with black chicken wire separating the back wall from the harsh fluorescent lighting of the office behind it. However, this expectation is also quite literally blown apart, as the set proves to be modular (with most of the pieces being dragged into place by a single heroic female stagehand dressed as a prison guard), shifting the box into bunks, a rec room, the infamous glass visitation wall, and back again. Essentially, there is no element in this show that doesn’t keep you guessing as it transforms, and that motion creates more life and action than you’d ever expect in a piece about a place as depressing and soul-sucking as a prison.
If you’re a fan of authentic queer characters, hard-hitting drama, sassy dark humor, or theatrical activism, you owe it to yourself to see PUNK. This show has all of these elements and more, with a message far beyond the simplistic truth that prisons are bad. The production carries you along with a story that is compelling, funny, emotional, and unique but feels so rooted in reality there are moments where you’ll wonder if it’s really from a script.
With tickets only being $15-$20, PUNK will hopefully find the big audience it so richly deserves.
PUNK runs through November 5th. For more information visit thenewcolony.org.