Let Me Live

Goodman Theatre Studio

By Adam Langer

The situation is familiar. It’s 1932 in an Atlanta prison, where a group of hardened inmates have formed their own Lord of the Flies-style hierarchical society. At the top stands the vicious, unpredictable Shonuff, who brutalizes his fellow prisoners and decides everything for them, from when they’ll eat to who they’ll fuck. At the bottom lies the hapless Smiley, a slave to Shonuff’s considerable sexual appetite. In between are several ragtag characters: the dying old Jenkins; the stammering, syphilitic Clancy; the wise, guitar-playing Bracey; the brawny Kennedy; and the frighteningly goofy sex maniac Dupree.

In their midst arrives a young, idealistic communist, Angelo, who’s been jailed for leading a workers’ strike. Although initially he’s subjected to considerable physical and verbal abuse by his tougher, less educated prison brethren, gradually he uses his oratorical skills to convince them of their own self-worth. Defending himself in a mock trial the prisoners hold, he gives them hope of improving their condition and fighting their sentences.

OyamO’s new play Let Me Live is based on the true story of agitator Angelo Herndon and his writings, including the 1937 Let Me Live. And one naturally anticipates the tale of a heroic man defeating seemingly insurmountable odds. But OyamO’s Let Me Live differs from the usual WPA power-to-the-people script, in which the struggles of the oppressed reveal their purity and honesty, in its pessimistic final outlook and the brutal way the young idealist is beaten into submission. No Capra-esque paean to the strength of workers’ ideals, this intensely violent play demonstrates that theater still has the power to shock. Not only is Herndon savagely assaulted by his fellow prisoners at the moment of his boldest and most outspoken triumph–firing the white lawyer who’s come to defend him–but, toward the end of the play, a seemingly earnest offer of friendship and brotherhood leads to rape.

Opening the drama with a series of horrifying images of lynchings, OyamO suggests that, after decades of slavery and oppression, quick fixes are impossible, violence is probably inevitable, and even heroes pay the price of living in a violent society. Though the characters may resemble figures we’ve seen before in comedies and dramas of barracks brotherhood, OyamO doesn’t use them for comic effect here. Nor does the fact that their plights are understandable make the characters any more sympathetic, as OyamO draws several to hideous extremes.

Dupree may regale his fellow inmates with ribald tales of his sexual conquests, but he describes them with such grotesque hyperbole that they appall instead of amuse. Clancy may be quick-witted, but his penchant for hacking phlegm in the direction of his fellow inmates, trying to infect them with venereal disease, is decidedly repulsive. Shonuff–who’s been jailed for murdering his wife and four brothers-in-law–may not be presented as a cold-blooded killer: his murders were motivated by his alcoholic wife’s slaughter of their own children. But in the end Shonuff is a demonic figure, a rapist and murderer who would no doubt kill again. Even the optimistic Herndon, who fought to improve conditions in the mines so that future generations wouldn’t succumb to black lung disease the way his father did, is ultimately forced by this savage society to become a killer himself.

Dedicating this Chicago premiere to Paul Robeson on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Ron O.J. Parson directs a joint Goodman Theatre/Onyx Theatre Ensemble production at the Goodman Theatre Studio. In a director’s note, Parson salutes Herndon for keeping dreams alive in the face of “degradation” and “humiliation.” And of all the characters, obviously Herndon is the hero, though he’s somewhat flawed by his naivete and hubris. But this is far from a hopeful piece of theater, and though we may admire Herndon for struggling beyond all hope or reason, the chilling realization that he’s unable to change this grim prison society is the play’s dreadful lingering impression. There may be music and songs throughout, but ultimately they don’t uplift spirits so much as they temporarily mollify the intense brutality and suffering of a jail that stinks of death and injustice.

Needless to say, Let Me Live is not the easiest piece to sit through. A ferocious, unrelenting nightmare, it feels like one furious wail. Even the most entertaining moments–from the spectacularly performed folk-blues songs (led by musical director Mississippi Charles Bevel, who also plays Bracey) to the razor-sharp dialogue and witty lampoons of American courtroom etiquette–are interrupted by terrifying images. And there are some overwritten passages that play more like agitprop than effective drama, especially when Herndon delivers his fiery speeches directly and too obviously to the audience.

Let Me Live will be a disappointment to those who come looking for the familiar, safely pseudocontroversial fare for which the Goodman is best known. But this is rewarding and vital political theater, superbly performed by Onyx members and others. One thing is certain: Parson–who’s also directing City Lit’s The Horn at Steppenwolf’s studio theater–is not responsible for any of that play’s dull or stilted passages. Let Me Live reveals him to be a director of considerable skill and intensity, coaxing from his performers some of the best ensemble work I’ve seen recently on a Chicago stage. The acting ranges from excellent to superior, but Clifton Williams is a standout as Shonuff. Commandingly fierce, he anchors this unforgettable production, suggesting a coiled python capable of striking at any moment.

Let Me Live’s grittiness and confrontational violence recall early Steppenwolf. But where Chicago-style rock ‘n’ roll drama has a kitschy, slapstick side, Parson’s staging plays the brutality straight, making it immediate, convincing, and undeniably scary.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Eric Y. Exit.