‘Lockdown’ Appeals for Justice Reform — and Compassion

Playwright Cori Thomas learned to see the San Quentin incarcerated as individuals, not as past crimes.

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Eric Berryman and Zenzi Williams in "Lockdown" at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Photo: Sandra Coudert.

The US incarcerates more people than any other nation. While there are different theories and arguments as to the cause of our mass incarceration issue, one that is indisputable is racial bias in our justice system. There is also concern with the justice system’s propensity toward lengthy, overly punitive sentences, leading to outcries for alternative strategies. Startled by the statistics, playwright Cori Thomas has spent the last few years thinking about how to humanize “millions of men, mostly of color, spending their entire lives, incarcerated, with very little hope of freedom.” The result is Lockdown, a new play now in Off-Broadway previews at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, in association with ShadowCatcher Entertainment. It opens on May 2, and runs to May 19.

Can an Off-Broadway play have the power and reach to alter public perception of prisoners who have committed violent crimes, and to influence policy? I caught up with Thomas and Kent Gash, the director of Lockdown, to answer these questions and to learn more about Thomas’ experiences with inmates inside California’s oldest prison.

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Robin Rothstein: What ignited the fire to write Lockdown?

Cori Thomas: I originally went into San Quentin Prison with two producers who were working on a podcast for which they hired me to write narration. We spent about three hours speaking with various men, and I left knowing I wanted to write about prison for a few reasons. One, I walked through the yard and saw the number of men of color, as opposed to Caucasian men. The disparity was startling. As a woman of color who had a Black father and a Black brother, it resonated. Two, I had walked into the prison, never having been in one, with a ridiculous preconception that I would meet a lot of hustlers who would tell me they didn’t do it, and want me to help them get out. I don’t know where I got this foolish image from. However, I was corrected — and ashamed  – when the men I met were 180 degrees the opposite. I initially wrote this play so that any other person who was as ignorant as I would know better.

RR: So you’d never participated in a project with prisoners elsewhere?

CT: Never. While there that first time, a man came up to me and asked me what I did (we were speaking with many people), and I said I was a playwright. He began telling me about a program he had started in the prison to prevent recidivism. He had written a play some time ago and wanted help revising or remounting it and asked if I would help. I wrote my number and email down and gave it to him (which goes to show how little I knew). I did not expect to hear anything ever again.

I left that day knowing I wanted to write about prison. One of the men there told me to read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I did, and it changed my life and made me want to write about it more.

Coincidentally, two weeks after that visit, Rattlestick called to commission me to write about any subject I wanted. I had already started writing a bad play — because one visit of a few hours and Google do not give you the right experience to write an authentic play. Then, about four months after that initial trip, I got a call out of the blue from a supervisor at San Quentin asking me if I was still interested in working on a play with Lonnie Morris (the man to whom I gave my contact information). That’s when it all fell into place.

It’s now three years later. I have also begun volunteering with Lonnie’s program No More Tears. Lonnie has been incarcerated over 42 years now, and his program is amazing. We are also working on our own play together, writing one from scratch. It’s very different from Lockdown.

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RR: What was your development process like? Did prisoners write any portion of the piece?

CT: I had been writing that bad play already, so I knew the story I was telling. What changed were the details and how I told it. I asked a lot of questions. Everyone [at the prison] got accustomed to me and my notebook and my asking them to repeat things. One man, Earlonne Woods, one of the hosts of the wonderful podcast “Ear Hustle,” suggested giving me vocabulary lessons, which he did. He’d teach me one word a day and give me quizzes.

I feel as if the DNA of the men there is a part of Lockdown. I wrote it all myself; it is fiction and it is set in a fictionalized prison. However, Lonnie has read, vetted and corrected any misrepresentations and corniness of every draft. I have incorporated tiny bits of stories and details I’ve seen or been told about. I copied bits of conversations I overheard to learn the rhythm of the speech and get the lingo right. It was like going to a new country, learning a new language and way of life. I would spend eight hours a day, at times, in there. I was working mostly with Lonnie on our play, but also absorbing the rhythm of life there. Then I’d go home and write my play all night.

I could not have written Lockdown without all of their help and my time there. I would ask procedure questions: “Tell me exactly what happens in this circumstance?” “How would you say this?” I went on tours. I did everything I could to immerse myself. There were also corrections officers who answered questions for me, so I could get that part right as well.

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RR: Kent, how did you come together with Cori for Lockdown?

Kent Gash: Cori and I have many mutual friends and colleagues, and I had heard a great deal about her work. I was sent the Lockdown script and asked to consider directing it. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted to be a part of telling the story that Cori had written.

CT: My preference for a director for this play was a Black man, if possible, and preferably one of middle age. Kent and I have the same agent. She was the one who suggested I speak with him after he’d had a chance to read the play. We had a call and in about five minutes I knew I wanted to work with him. I had also seen and loved Barbeque [which he directed at The Public Theater]. We had the opportunity to work on the play at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and that was a great experience.

KG: Cori is shedding light on an important issue in the lives of so many Black and brown people who have been incarcerated themselves, or who have family members who are, or have been, incarcerated. And she is writing powerfully from personal experience. I couldn’t resist, and am honored that she asked me to collaborate with her.

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Cori Thomas

RR: Describe the structure and tone of Lockdown.

KG: I hesitate to give too much away about structure and tone because the theater-going experience should be one of discovery and surprise. Suffice it to say, the structure and tone are honest, truthful, theatrical and compelling. The play challenges assumptions…and is not what you might expect.

CT: Realism, but with a little magic. Told through the eyes of a woman as unfamiliar with the world as I was. I wrote a lot of the play in real time, and so I think I discovered what I was trying to say as I was actually discovering it.

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RR: Why is theater the best vehicle for this story? Also, can you speak about the relevance of long-term incarceration?

CT: I think theater, and all art forms, are a wonderful way to inspire an audience to find out more about various subjects and to understand something better. Of course, a play is entertainment, but, if well written and depicted, it may help you see something clearer and to learn it in an immersive, organic kind of a way. I think a play is a good way to bridge the gap between audience and any subject matter.

KG: Lockdown addresses, on a personal level, the chronic and epic challenges that Black and brown men face as the disproportionate majority of those who are incarcerated in our country. Much has been written and dramatized about the “prison pipeline,” and daily we see headlines of light sentences for white citizens convicted of crimes while Black men are imprisoned sometimes for minor infractions. Lockdown asks us not to see these men as prisoners and inmates but as complex, individual human beings who had lives before they were incarcerated and who continue to be human once they are imprisoned. We cannot forget these people. What is the life of a man who is in the system from age 18 and now in his 60s?

The theater is a place of metaphor. So, rather than document or dramatize the grimier details of prison, can we explore the impact on a man’s life by examining what freedom, imprisonment and “lockdown” really mean? Can the human spirit be repressed, shut down and imprisoned? What is real freedom — and is there real freedom without responsibility? A play can ask us these questions through engaging and detailed storytelling.

RR: What surprised you the most while working on Lockdown?

CT: As a woman unfamiliar with prison, what surprised me was the level of comfort I felt spending time in a men’s prison. I was primarily around lifers who have, in some cases, committed serious crimes. What they did that brought them there had little importance in how I saw and interacted with them. I’ve come to know, define and value them as individuals, and not by their crime.

Being in that kind of close proximity to so many men, and having the privilege to spend so much time seeing them with their guards down, has made me respect men in general a lot more than I did before. They are inspiring, intelligent and articulate, and we have learned a lot from each other. Mostly what surprised me was that they respected and supported my desire to want to tell as authentic a story as possible, and that they bravely shared with me such intimate details of their lives. I feel so honored and blessed.

And they are all so excited about this play! My wish is to film it and bring inside, so they can see the production. Apparently, it can be done with Actors’ Equity’s permission, but it costs a bit. Or maybe we can bring actors in to do it for them. They have contributed so much to the final outcome that I pray it can happen. At the worst, I’ll go in there and read it out loud myself!

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RR: What effect do you hope Lockdown will have on audiences? Do you think it could affect policy? Could elected officials attend?

CT: The focus of the play is parole and longtime confinement — redemption, forgiveness, change. I worked really hard to — and Lonnie really pushed me to — not sanitize the characters and circumstances. I kept trying to soften the characters in earlier drafts, and he told me that if I wanted people to really see how much a person can change, I had to really show them as they are, with no apology. And I made it a point to try to tell as well rounded a story as possible.

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Kent Gash

KG: I hope that our production prompts conversation and honest dialogue about incarceration. People are often ashamed to speak about how imprisonment may have affected their lives or the lives of loved ones and family members. If we don’t talk about it, then we don’t act to bring about change. The big hope would be large-scale reform and reconsideration of our justice system. This takes time and relentless effort that often only happens when you are passionately committed to a cause.

CT: The lead character has committed what many elected officials would consider to be one of the worst, unforgivable crimes possible. So if any of them could find themselves caring about him and find it in their heart to forgive him, because they understand who he was and who he is now, I will have done my job. It is my biggest hope that elected officials who have a hand in policy see the play. Maybe they might better understand some of the people whose lives they hold in their hands.

KG: Many people from a wide range of organizations are being asked to see the play, and there is a conversation after every performance. My hope is that those are substantive conversations that compel people to act in whatever ways they can, from volunteering to engaging legislators and demanding change and reconsideration.

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RR: Talk about how this project shaped your perspectives on leadership.

KG: I can only say that working on this project continues to affirm that, as a director leading the process, the capacity to bring out the best in every actor and designer in service to the script is my sole purpose.

CT: I see public officials running on liberal and so-called “reform platforms.” Then, after winning, they give into pressure and take safe positions that are not reform at all. I want to see brave, humane leadership. There is no reason 2.2 million Americans are incarcerated; many of them who will spend their entire lives incarcerated. The three-strike rule is dumb. There is no reason so few people serving life sentences are released when lifers have a less than one percent recidivism rate.

There is no understanding of the circumstances that lead certain people to crime and violence. The men I’ve come to know understand what freedom costs. Nobody knows better than they do what they lost when they committed their crime and were sentenced to life. A person who has committed a violent crime in the past is as able to change as someone who has committed a non-violent crime. Our parole system should focus more on who someone is now, rather than rehashing a crime committed years in the past: a prison system focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Leadership that takes all of these points into considerations would go a long way towards changing society. Mostly leadership that is human and brave enough to go against the status quo. That’s what I want to see.