One-person plays encounter so many pitfalls. They're so risky. An actor has to be captivating, has to lure the audience in alone, without the help of other actors to play against. It's why I sometimes cringe at the idea of going to see one—they can be utterly painful to sit through if the tone falls flat. And sometimes, I think, the more the actor doesn't get into the groove the more he/she struggles against the sinkhole with overacting, which of course only makes it worse. I say all this because when an actor does actually nail it, then the one-person performance becomes divine—and that's exactly the case with Leah Joki's one-woman show Prison Boxing.
Prison Boxing is a play that came out of Joki's experience of almost 20 years teaching in California prisons through the Arts-in-Corrections program, which she helped establish in the early 1980s. She taught screenwriting to inmates and helped them put on plays, and came to know the complex subculture of 25-to-lifers.
It's a simple setup. The stage is split into rooms with simple lines made of tape and each time she moves from room to room you hear the jolting sound of a buzzer and a metal door sliding opening, indicating the maximum security prison. But beyond that (and some video) it's just Joki out there playing 14 characters—from a drug addict to an abused woman who killed her husband to a murder victim. Do you recall how Edward Norton in Primal Fear switched from sweet, innocent Aaron to his other personality, Roy, the violent sociopath? That's what happens here in 14 different mutations. It's impressive how Joki settles quickly into a gruff Latino accent after pulling us in with the scared voice of a child snatched from her slumber party room. There's so much opportunity for melodrama, but Joki has the kind of restraint that never shatters the feelings you're dealing with a stage full of characters and not just one person pretending.
I've written before about Joki's time teaching arts in the prison, and the stories that I found interesting then come out in this play, too. For instance, there's no violence on "pie day" when church groups bring pies into the prison. It's a day of peace—like a truce—because, Joki says, the inmates believe everyone deserves their slice of pie. Those details of etiquette and other evidence of Joki's insider knowledge is what helps this production not feel like a cliche. You'll recognize some themes you've seen in any other productions (film or play) about prison, but the details are so particular here. You can tell Joki is a writer at heart who didn't settle on the obvious storyline.
Prison Boxing has come a long way since it was first staged in Missoula. Initially, it needed some work and Joki has obviously worked her ass off to hone it into a precise piece with the help of director Linda Grinde. It's a high wire act between humor and horror. And it was created in Missoula but recently staged at the Skylight Theatre in Los Angeles. Joe Manganiello, an actor (werewolf from True Blood), bought the film rights to her book, Juilliard to Jail, which is on the same topic. I think this production could be going places. I think you should go see it while you still have the chance.
Leah Joki Prison Boxing for the Zootown Fringe Festival at the Crystal Theatre tonight, Saturday, Aug. 16, at 5:30 PM. $10.