I wrote a play once, called , “Jody Thomas Doesn’t Want To Die.” It was prompted by the Robert Alton Harris case in 1992—the first execution in California in 25 years. It provoked a vexing question: why does a death-sentenced prisoner cooperate in his own execution, more so, what would happen if he refused and stalemated the execution? Here is a brief synopsis of how the play developed:
What if a death-row inmate, just before the appointed time of execution, manages to grab a weapon and hostages? What does he have to lose? How do you negotiate with him?
It is the nightmare of every prison official. Here is a young man, a cop-killer, condemned to death, and who now commands his own future. He has twisted the system; there is nothing to negotiate except his own survival.
In the death-house cellblock: Jody Thomas, barefoot, armed, with three hostages including a Catholic priest. Caught up in the explosive melee, his ACLU attorney, a young woman fighting to save Jody's life in defiance of the rush to capital punishment.
Up above in the control center: the Warden, an experienced professional reluctantly cast in the role of executioner and pressured by his hostile staff. At his back, the Governor, a seasoned, slick-willy politician whose agenda is shaped by his own public image.
Outside: a media circus.
In real time, the countdown begins. There is no way to roust Jody without harming the hostages. A gritty stalemate becomes an uncontrollable horror. Sacrificing the life of a hostage, Jody sets a deadline. A deal is struck: his death sentence will be commuted. The shock of it is... Jody rejects the offer. He knows he won’t get far, yet he wants to escape. He doesn’t want to die by agreement! This young, uneducated loser has discovered his own free will. Another deal — engineered by the Governor — sets Jody and his hostages toward escape and the hungry, beckoning media outside. A bizarre dance begins that brings betrayal, madness and destroys Jody. The sweet smell of politics prevails.
On first look, this play was seen as a strong anti-capital-punishment piece. But that was not its intent. It also proposed a risky approach: playing it in real time, minute by minute for 120 minutes; not only challenging for the actors but also a potentially exhausting confrontation for the audience. The reading edition was prefaced with this:
A Question Of Time!
One of the most powerful instruments in the theatre is the license to manipulate time. It gives the playwright and the actor a fourth dimension in which the stifling constrictions of so-called realism are liquified to allow an audience to travel with the performers.
However, this is a stark, unrelieved play. The wonderful magic of that fourth dimension has been bottled; the license suspended. The attempt here is to draw the audience on to the stage in a moment by moment, movement by movement relationship with the characters. It is set in raw, real time because an understanding of the events is charged in real time.
A Question Of Casting!
The recent trend in multicultural casting is bringing a long, sought-after relief from the tyranny of typecasting, a theatrical albatross, to say the least. This play lends itself, in part, to that trend. It is set in the U.S. and it turns on the fact that the central character is a product of the cultural majority. In the U.S. that makes Jody Thomas a white man. The ethnicity of the other characters is irrelevant, which opens up the casting wide. There is no provision, by design, for ethnic references or issues. Which means that the same principle applies when the play is set and staged in other countries.
As for characterization, though specific vocabulary is used, there has been no attempt to reproduce accents, dialects or flavors of speech. This has been left where it belongs, in the hands of the actor.
‘Jody Thomas’ was never presented as a fully realized stage production. One of the barriers was an exceptionally large cast and a complex split-level set design. Another was the great concern about setting it in real time. But what really stalled its production was its ending.
The play did have a few staged readings: two in the U.S., one in Canada, another in Australia and one in Sweden. Those that I saw and heard were interesting and provocative. The readings worked because even with its intense, unrelenting action, the play at its core is dialogue driven.
Later, it was optioned in both its screenplay version and as a stage play. The idea was to make the film and stage the play just as the film was released. It didn’t happen. The producers, who were hot on the death-penalty message, wanted to completely change the ending. They thought it was too “esoteric” and weakened the power of the “message.” I had no intended message, just a question… what would happen? Jody Thomas is not a sympathetic character. He is a brutal, brutalized man who never made it past square one. And in the end, when he brings the whole process to a stalemated halt, the authorities have no choice but to offer him a deal: cancel the execution and commute his sentence to life in prison without parole. He refuses the deal! Knowing that he is headed for an abyss, he only wants, for the first time in his life, to exercise his own free will. He denies the deal, saying to his lawyer:
“Sure...they keep feeding it into your ear, this is the way things got to be, this is what you got to do because...because that's the way it is. And you don't know any better. So just go along, be a nice little nobody and just go along...don't hassle it, don't fight it...because that's the way it is, because for you, that's the way it was meant to be. All my life...that's the dope they been feeding me, that's the fog that's been sitting in my head. And then it hit me...way inside. It hit me when I was sitting on that throne, with the dark on my eyes and the acid crawling up my nose... I said, wait a minute, it's all I got, my life! If I let them take that, if I let them kill me, then it don't mean nothing, I'm nothing. [he smiles as tears begin to trickle down his face] See what I mean, lady...if you die, you lose. If you die, it's all gone, it don't mean nothing.
You don't get it, do you. I ain’t beat them...I ain't got nothing until I'm outside that front gate, breathing that air and running like hell. It don't make no difference what they stick into my back as long as I'm running...away from them...as long as I called the shot.”
It was too off-message, too “esoteric” and it broke the option.
I didn’t then nor now have any use for dramaturgs, literary managers, workshopping, development, auteur directors, or theatre by committee. The ‘stuff’ of theatre is acting. Everyone else is a subsidiary contributor. When the curtain rises, there is only the actor and his/her audience.
And I believe that a playwright should write, first, to be read and then have the work present the wonderful challenge for adaptation to the stage or screen, the wondrous challenge to the actors, with all of its flaws and intrinsic problems intact. It is the playwright’s option, alone, to rewrite or not. It is the actor’s option to bring it to visual life, or not.
Not very pragmatic, not very commercial, not very marketable. That’s the story of ‘Jody Thomas’... and Jody Thomas.