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First Person: Alessandro Camon on the Trauma of Isolation in Time Alone

The author's new play deals with incarceration and the "walls that divide us."

Alessandro Camon's new play Time Alone is now premiering at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, starring Alex Hernandez and Tonya Pinkins.
(photo provided by Davidson & Choy Publicity)

Crime divides us. It splits people into the opposite categories of criminal and victim. Sometimes the division indicates a preexisting social fracture. As a society, our way of dealing with crime consists, by and large, of punitive measures. Chief among them is incarceration: We rely on it so much that we have created the largest prison system in human history.

But what is incarceration, if not another way to divide people, literally putting walls between them? While there are good arguments for why dangerous criminals should be put in prison, prison alone is not a solution — in fact, it perpetuates divisions that result in further crime. We need to do better. We need to reach for the tools that can help us repair the fractures, overcome the divisions. I believe that one of those tools is storytelling. When we hear stories about those we don't know, we have a chance to recognize our common humanity.

This was the simple instinct that prompted me to write Time Alone. In the last few years, I've had the chance to meet hundreds of incarcerated people all over California, from the juvenile halls in Los Angeles to the Pelican Bay SHU (Secure Housing Unit), the harshest facility in the state. I never walked away without heartbreak, and an urge to do something. I volunteer, and I advocate, but ultimately, I'm a storyteller. And so, a story started forming in my mind. I decided early on that it would have two sides. I wanted it to deal with the plight of incarceration, but also with the trauma of crime victims and survivors.

Time Alone presents two characters who are fundamentally divided. They have profoundly different experiences of crime and justice, and opposing worldviews. They are separate, unaware of each other, and the play switches back and forth between their different journeys. I was keen to explore how these journeys contrast, but also indirectly reflect each other.

Ultimately, I wanted to take these two characters to the darkest, loneliest places — a solitary confinement prison cell, and the empty home of a bereaved mother who lost her only son — and let their stories echo back and forth, until these two kinds of loneliness merged into something beyond loneliness. It was a creative challenge. I also felt that it pointed at the moral challenge that we all face — listening through the walls, for as long as there are walls.

The journeys of these two characters are extreme, but they concern universal truths. It isn't hard for anyone to feel lonely. I believe it's one of the main features of our contemporary life, in which "community" is becoming harder to find and sustain, and virtual relationships are supplanting real ones. Therefore, while the play is about crime and justice and incarceration, I think it's ultimately about the fundamental human need to connect.

Writing it has helped me through a rough personal time, having to do with a health crisis in the family. I knew I didn't have it in me to write a cheerful piece of entertainment (perhaps not my forte, anyway). The decision to write it as a play felt very natural, and oddly liberating. I felt free to just let the characters say what they had to say.

Bart De Lorenzo, the play's director, has been a fantastic partner in shaping their voices. About Alex Hernandez and Tonya Pinkins, our two leads, I will simply say this: They have some difficult places to go. Places they could not access without deep emotional honesty, and even bravery, in addition to talent and craft. They go there and it is my hope that the audience will go there with them .

Alex Hernandez and Tonya Pinkins costar in Time Alone at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
(© Kayt Jones)