Land of the free?

Four Walls Theater presents Pravin Wilkins’s ‘BARS’

3 minute read
Facing and perpetuating an oppressive justice system: Janan Ashton and Xander Jackson in ‘BARS.’ (Image courtesy of Four Walls Theater.)
Facing and perpetuating an oppressive justice system: Janan Ashton and Xander Jackson in ‘BARS.’ (Image courtesy of Four Walls Theater.)

Online performances have quickly become the norm during the coronavirus pandemic, and Four Walls Theater, a new all-remote theater collective, is joining in. Brooklyn-based playwright and community volunteer Elana Gartner created the grassroots operation earlier this year to produce plays via online readings and performances. Pravin Wilkins’s BARS marks the group’s final production of the year. Streamed live on October 17 and 18, a recording of the performance is available to view through October 31.

For each of its plays, Four Walls donates some of the proceeds to an organization of its choice. The proceeds from BARS will go toward theKEEPERS, an international collective founded by rapper/songwriter Akua Naru and led by Black womxn, who archive the creative work of females in hip-hop and spoken word and foster safe performance spaces.

The truth about the justice system

The 90-minute play was performed live on Zoom, with all actors working from their own individual spaces. The settings were minimal: scenes toggled between a jail cell, an office, and a performance space amidst plain white walls and only a few props. Audience members watched via YouTube. Narrated stage directions filled the gaps between physical movements and interactions.

The story follows Dae (Janan Ashton), a resident of Oklahoma City and recently deported immigrant, as she fights for justice for Robi (Kalman Szili), a refugee who was arrested while protesting the Dakota Pipeline. Although she has strong community connections as a spoken-word poet, Dae seeks the help of her friend Alex Long (Xander Jackson), the district attorney prosecuting Robi’s case. Although Long, like Dae, is a person of color, he struggles to take measures to change a justice system that he works within, but that he knows is inherently corrupt.

BARS makes poignant commentary on the American prosecutorial system. Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, while the pandemic exacerbates racial inequity and social injustice is exposed like a raw nerve, Wilkins’s play reminds us that the American legal system is designed to incarcerate Black and brown people, and keep them in prison.

The cliff and the waves

“A child came to the self-proclaimed land of the free and we locked him up for trying,” Dae says, underlining the hypocrisy of so-called American values.

Dae shows her spoken-word roots by sharing her own poetry throughout the play, highlighting the inherently political and social nature of the art form. A form of poetry where the traditional rules are tossed aside, spoken word symbolizes rebellion, a fight for social change.

“And after I crash against that cliff it will stay standing, but do not lament my defeat,” Dae says. “Though each wave may only dislodge a pebble from that mighty rock, still one day, one day after a million waves that cliff will have eroded and we will be left with the glorious sand of that shore.” Dae understands that one person’s fight will not necessarily achieve substantial change, that only the unified actions of the masses can move the needle.

Who can rebuild?

The attorney Alex progresses in his career, but he must reckon with the people under his power. “I can’t break and rebuild an entire system with my bare hands. No one can,” he says. But Robi and Dae urge another view.

Wilkins’s poignant story forces its audience to face the reality of racism and the oppressiveness of our society's justice system, and even people like Alex, who strive to change the system from the inside, can get ensnared in its web. Robi may have spent time behind physical bars, but Alex is also imprisoned by the system as long as he continues to turn its gears.

Image description: A Zoom screenshot shows two actors’ faces side by side in two equal rectangles. Janan Ashton, a Black woman, plays Dae on the left; and Xander Jackson, a Black man, plays Alex Long on the right. Dae has long hair and wears a blue shirt. Alex has a beard and wears a suit and tie.

What, When, Where

BARS. By Pravin Wilkins. Directed by Heather Harvey. Four Walls Theater. Performed live on Zoom and broadcast via YouTube on October 17 and 18, 2020. Available for viewing through October 31, 2020.

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