Soledad Brother

GEORGE: I recall the day I was born, the first day of my generation. It was during the second and most destructive capitalist world war for colonial privilege, early on a rainy Wednesday morning. It happened to me in a little fold-into-the-wall bed, in a little half-flat on Racine and Lake. Dr. Rogers attended. The ol’ train that rattled by within fifteen feet of our front windows screamed in at me like the banshee, portentous of pain, death, threatening and imminent. The first motion that my eyes focussed on was this pink hand swinging in a wide arc in the general direction of my black ass. I stopped that hand, the left downward block and countered the right middle finger to the eye. I was born with my defense reflexes well developed.

The Story

An adaptation of Soledad Brother, the prison letters of George Jackson. Jackson spent eleven years in Soledad Prison – seven of them in solitary – for stealing $70 from a gas station when he was 18.

The Backstory

In my first year of grad school playwriting, I was given an assignment over the Easter holiday – read the introduction to this recently-published collection of letters and write a short play around it. I couldn’t stop at the introduction – I read the entire book – and wrote the play in something like three days. That May it received a production in Penn State’s amazing 5 O’Clock Theatre – student-written, student-directed, student-acted short plays, attended by SRO audiences of – you guessed it – students. Mike Cooper, a Penn State quarterback who had never acted before, played Jackson, and he was astonishing. In fact the whole production was amazing, ground-breaking – I have never seen or heard an end-of-show ovation like the one that happened at the first of two performances. (The second performance had the same response, but I wasn’t in attendance – I had an acting rehearsal to go to!) The audience, during the curtain call, stormed the stage. It was wonderful! It was powerful! And it was goddamn frightening.

I include this play in the collection because it was, for me, the beginning of everything.

Because it was an assignment, meant only for class, I didn’t – of course – have official permission to write this adaptation. But a remarkable thing happened. In attendance (at the second performance, I believe) was Anne Fremantle, a visiting writer from the New York Times, and she wrote a rave review that was published in the Times. (She ended her review with the wish: “It is to be hoped that Soledad Brother will be widely produced, including in New York.”) Her good friend, by an even more remarkable coincidence, was George Jackson’s literary agent, and suddenly I had the agent’s blessing. I was on Cloud #10!

But then, that summer, George Jackson was murdered. The rights to his letters reverted to his family, and they withdrew permission, claiming that I was trying to make an “entertainment” out of their family’s loss.

I include this play in the collection – even though it is not available for presentation at the moment – because it was, for me, the beginning of everything.

The original program. Note: You might recognize the actor who played “Leader” as a cast member of Star Trek: The Next Generation.