Something wondrous occurred last month - a shot of support for those of us who still believe that theater can (and should) claim a vaster turf than TV or movies, that in some indescribably powerful and primitive way it can renew us.
It was midmorning when members of the San Quentin Drama Workshop (SQDW) - actor and co-director Rick Cluchey, co-director R.S. Bailey and company manager Kevin McCraw - trundled into Central Juvenile Hall in East L.A. to perform Eh Joe, a short one-man play by Samuel Beckett, for approximately 80 incarcerated teenage killers. The performance was part of a program organized by Stacey Brightman, educational director with the Outreach Program of the Friends of the Cerritos Center. (For the project's other component, SQDW staged Eh Joe with two different playlets performed by women, Come and Go and Footfalls, for a gathering of high school students in upscale Cerritos.)
As we were herded inside a security cubicle between the street and the prison yard, Cluchey, with his thunderous voice, wizened face and ponytailed silver hair, recalled life as a prisoner in San Quentin. In 1957, he said, the penitentiary was visited by a troupe from the San Francisco Actors Workshop - including Herbert Blau, Jules Irving and Alan Mandell - who put on Beckett's Waiting for Godot for the inmates. Despite its critical and commercial success, this was a play that had baffled most American audiences, as well as a substantial number of Europeans and Brits. "But inside San Quentin," Cluchey explained, "when Pozzo and Lucky showed up - the master holding the slave on a rope, ordering him about - the place exploded with laughter. There was an immediate connection!"
The spectacle so affected Cluchey, he asked the warden if he could start a prison theater company. The following year, SQDW was born on a budget of $25 a year for makeup and the stipulation that there be no female impersonations (evidently viewed as a dangerous provocation). Theater, Cluchey discovered, was a passion that, with a little help from his friends, set him free - spiritually and physically. (Governor Pat Brown granted Cluchey parole eligibility; later, the pol's son officially pardoned him.)
SQDW is the only American company with which Beckett himself worked as a director - in 1977, 1980 and 1984 - and in the 40 years of its existence Cluchey has toured three continents with Beckett's works (and one play of his own, The Cage), usually behind stone walls and barbed wire.
Suddenly, all eyes turn to the yard. Two lines of young men in orange jump suits walk in single file, chains sagging between handcuffs that bind their wrists behind their backs. Cluchey blanches at the sight. A few minutes later, in the same yard, we're met by the vice principal of Juvenile Hall school, Arlene Schoonhoven. Crossing the yard to the chapel - the performance site - Schoonhoven says that the facility receives children as young as 9, usually arsonists when they come in at that age. It costs about $30,000 in tax dollars per year to keep a child incarcerated; the same amount, she notes, could put a kid through Harvard.
When we arrive at the chapel, the all-male, mostly Latino audience is filing into rows of wooden benches, no longer handcuffed but still walking with their hands behind their backs, monitored by their "handlers." These youths are charged with "187" - murder or attempted murder - and when they turn 18, they'll most likely transfer to the state prison system. A few of them are actually innocent, Schoonhoven tells me, taking the fall for a sibling or a local gang member (if they don't take the rap, they know their families will pay for it).
McCraw feverishly sets up a tape deck and checks his sound system. The young men's quiet conversations echo in the cavernous chamber, then fall silent as Cluchey takes the stage.
After introducing himself, Cluchey tells the story of the crime that landed him in San Quentin. It's like a scene out of Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown: Groundhog Day, 1955, working with a partner parked half a block away, Cluchey hid in the car of a man who was collecting rents from downtown L.A. hotels. When the man returned to his car and drove away, Cluchey sprang up from the back seat and demanded the money and the man's diamond ring. That's when Cluchey's .44 Magnum went off. It wasn't pointed at anybody, and all the windows were closed, so the bullet ricocheted around the car, just grazing the victim.
"My partner was so scared he was shouting, 'Did you kill him? Did you kill him?' I ran home to Chicago, got arrested after my partner rolled on me, got extradited to L.A. County. The victim a had some connection with the L.A. Times, so the newspaper wanted the death penalty. But I gave the guy his ring back, and he became a friendly witness. They gave me life without parole instead."
Cluchey goes on to discuss a famous death-row convict named Caryl Chessman, who was charged with kidnapping, rape and sodomy. "What's sodomy?" a baby-faced young charge asks - not a joke or a setup, but an earnest question. Although there are no titters when Cluchey answers the question concisely and clinically, the ex-convict is clearly rattled.
Cluchey excuses himself to change into costume while Bailey steps forward to explain the idea behind Eh Joe: An old man in decline, a former womanizer, hears a lover's voice in his head taunting him for the callous way he's treated the women in his life.
Cluchey re-emerges, in black tuxedo trousers and a red dressing gown, his white locks now set loose over his ears. He sits on a padded wooden chair placed strategically in front of the chapel's lily-adorned crucifix (hardly a subtle use of symbolism), balanced symmetrically with potted palms on each side. He gazes out. The audience leans forward, rapt. Silence. A crow outside caws four times. McCraw pushes a button on his tape deck. We hear a female voice, an Irish brogue, snippets of sentences:
Anyone living love you now, Joe? . . .
That slut that comes on Saturday, you pay her, don't you? . . .
Penny a hoist, tuppence as long as you like . . .
Watch yourself you don't run short Joe . . .
Weaker and weaker . . .
I was strong myself when I started . . .
In the early days . . .
When we sat watching the ducks . . .
How you admired my elocution! . . . Among other charms.
The best's to come, you said, that last time . . .
Hurrying me into my coat . . .
The best's to come . . .
You were right for once . . . In the end.
Through all this, Joe says not a word. His face reflects the merest twinges of regret, then of agony. (The play was conceived as a teleplay, with tight angles on the old man's face.) There's not even a spotlight to focus on Cluchey's subtle shifts of expression, the welling tears. This is anti-theater: No dialogue. No lights. No action. Talk about a challenge for an audience weaned on Chuck Norris and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Yet even after 20 minutes, nobody's shifting on the benches or making wisecracks. They're still leaning forward.
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In a post-performance discussion, one young man asks Cluchey what it was that made him cry. "The emotion of being with you guys," he answers. "It's a spiritual thing. We're in a house of God."
Another asks if the woman's voice is supposed to be the devil.
How is it that this static play by an Irish poet appears, astonishingly, to have struck such a chord in Juvie Hall? If the assault of images and sensations we endure daily has created a kind of attention deficit disorder, can the environment of a prison or a youth detention center, where such distractions are comparatively restricted, restore our ability to concentrate? Then, of course, there are Beckett's themes of regret and isolation. This is an audience - unlike the one in Cerritos, whose questions tended to focus on performance and stagecraft - for whom life-in-solitary isn't just a metaphor.
The San Quentin Drama Workshop productions of Eh Joe, Footfalls and Come and Go are running at the St. Ambrose Arts Center under the umbrella "Beckett's Women."