Critics initially responded to the “raw” qualities of the play’s actors (who were former convicts) and to its unblinking realism. Although critics compared the play to playwright Jean Genet and his portrayal of prison experience, critics also focused on the racial and ethnic lines Piñero drew in his work, as well as on Piñero’s savvy political staging of power and violence both in and out of prison. Piñero’s treatment of sexuality consistently intertwined with violence raises disturbing questions about the inmates’ treatment of Davis, who may be no more depraved than they, and prison life’s lasting effects on men.
As a “Nuyorican” (American and Caribbean) poet and playwright, Piñero explores the bleak worlds of the dispossessed: the poor, the outcast, the homosexual, the “other.” His works, however, also call for personal responsibility even in the face of often overwhelming social odds. Through Juan’s choice to show Davis mercy, as well as El Raheem’s last-minute realization that he cannot kill Davis, the play underlines the ability of each individual, no matter the violence, poverty, or horror he or she has experienced, to choose to end the cycle of violence. As such, the play evokes existentialist questions about humanity’s ability to create meaning through action, or in this case, inaction.