Monday, May 23, 2011

Monday Night in Hell's Kitchen: 2011 PEN Prison Writing Drama Awards Reading at New Dramatists

Tonight we had the privilege of going to New Dramatists for a wonderful reading of the award-winning plays in the 2011 PEN Prison Writing Drama Prizes,

curated by our fellow PEN member and a brilliant writer we've idolized for forty years, Harding Lemay, ever since we read his 1971 memoir -- one of the best -- Inside, Looking Out, and then later in the 1970s when he was the head writer for Another World, our favorite soap opera of all time, in some ways because of the innovative storylines and characters he created. Pete Lemay has been active in the Prison Writing Program and at New Dramatists for a long time.

After he spoke, literary agent Claudia Menza, chair of the PEN Prison Creative Writing Committee, talked briefly about the importance of the program in prisoners' lives. Coming on a day when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling declaring that California's inmates lived in conditions that violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, it made us think about the needs of the incarcerated.

The always-impressive Susan Rosenberg, who as an inmate was a participant of the program, also spoke about its importance. Of her just-published book, An American Radical: A Political Prisoner In My Own Country. Kirkus Reviews said: "Articulate and clear-eyed, Rosenberg’s memoir memorably records the struggles of a woman determined to be the agent of her own life."

The five award-winning plays by prisoners all over the United States were read, in a program expertly directed by Michael Keck, were acted out (sometimes in part) in readings by a talented cast of well-regarded actors we've seen onstage and in films and TV doing good work: Sue Berch, James P. Earley, Frank Galgano, Annie Kozuch, Douglas Taurel, Jeffery V. Thompson and Judith Barcroft, who radiates the same clear-eyed intelligence and beauty now as she did when we were a junior high student in 1965, rushing home to watch her as Leonore Moore on Another World.

We got to hear the final act (of three) of the first place play, The Secret of Sky, an extraordinarily innovative interpretation of the Creation with a thought-provoking intellectual confrontation between a prisoner, a female Monk, and a jailer.
Christopher Myers of Nevada won the Dawson Prize for his verse drama in ancient Greek style, Socrates in LA, in which a group of knowledgeable but naive graduate students (the chorus) summons Sophocles to a contemporary academic setting and gets him to lecture and debate Socrates on the relative merits of philosophy and drama. What was most impressive about all the plays was that they could manage a first-rate narrative arc while dealing with serious issues and ideas.

Getting Around to It, a one-act contemporary family drama, won Honorable Mention and was by Keith Sanders of Texas, a previous first-prize winner.

In memorable performances, the cast did a terrific job with the main characters: a stubborn old man struggling with Parkinson's disease; his well-meaning but overwhelmed adult son; and a woman hired to play chess with and surreptitiously care for the father. There were no stereotypes here.

We enjoyed the vivid performances and language in part three of the trilogy, Midnight Phantom, entitled Lilith Anacrusis or the Vampire, by Loren Ivory Morgan, who won third place. Combining mythological and Biblical stories, it was an imaginative, compelling and sometimes funny fantasy of good and evil.

The last play, the second place winner, was a remarkable screenplay, Healing Bin Laden, now rendered (similar to Kushner's Angels in America) a kind of tour-de-force historical fantasia on international themes.

Its quick-cut, multilayered plot spanned four continents, with characters ranging from female intelligence operatives to a Miami Catholic priest with supposed healing powers to the squabbling hierarchy of Al Qaeda.

At the end of the performances, enthusiastically applauded by a good-sized audience in New Dramatists' upstairs performance space (the building is an old magnificent Gothic revival church we mentioned in a blog post last year),

The novelist Jackson Taylor (The Blue Orchard), the director of the PEN Prison Writing Program, thanked Harding Lemay, Michael Keck, stage manager Brian Otano (who read stage directions), the amazing cast, and the writers in prison who created the works we got to sample tonight and the many more who've been involved in this wonderful program.

If you'd like a worthy cause to donate to -- or leave your trust-fund fortune to -- we can't imagine a better one than the PEN Prison Writing Program. We're grateful indeed to everyone involved in tonight's event and the program and are very proud that they've let us be a member of PEN for nearly thirty years.

It was exciting to finally meet Harding Lemay at the end of the evening and even more exciting to learn that Inside, Looking Out and his other great book, Eight Years in Another World are now available on Kindle.

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