Chris Hedges on Teaching Playwriting in Prison

Writing Exercises, Sincerity, and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman

The scenes submitted by the class were mixed. There were three or four powerful scenes, written with great pathos and skill. There were several scenes, composed of short, staccato moments that leapt from location to location, which does not usually work in theater. There were scenes that used the tired, hypermasculine clichés that glorify the lives of thugs, hustlers, killers, and drug dealers. There were also scenes that went nowhere. But I was intrigued by the good ones. They were written by students with strong writing skills and an ear for the cadences of speech. I did not understand at the time why Sincere, one of the brightest and most gifted students in the class, and who I could sense was a talented writer, handed in dramatic passages that read like bad television scripts.

Subsequently, I learned that he had been framed for his crime, had little experience on the streets, and based his portrayal of violent thugs on popular culture and prison lore, which invariably romanticizes gangsters. He wrote, in all capital letters at the bottom of each of his papers, “I am innocent.”

Sincere’s submissions centered around one of the most notorious mobsters and serial killers in the New Jersey prison system: Richard Kuklinski, known as “the Iceman,” a nickname he was given after it was discovered that he had stuffed the body of one of his victims into a freezer to mask the time of the murder.

I have taught two, perhaps three psychopaths, including a hitman for the Russian mob in Atlantic City, New Jersey, who dispatched his victims by strangling them. They were intelligent and articulate, adept at flattery and manipulation, emotionally dead, and very creepy. One insisted, in a class I taught a few years later, on sitting next to me every time, often pulling his desk close to mine. He showered me with obsequious compliments. I, and everyone else in the room, suspected he was working as a prison snitch to report anything a student or I might say, which could be reported and used against us. I assigned the class Bruno Bettelheim’s essay “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.”

The essay examines how prisoners coped psychologically in Germany’s Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, where the Austrian-born Bettelheim was interned by the Nazis. Bettelheim, who later emigrated to the United States and became a world-renowned psychologist, writes about prisoners who identified with their Nazi SS guards:

“Old prisoners who identified themselves with the SS did so not only in respect to aggressive behavior. They would try and acquire old pieces of SS uniforms. If that was not possible, they tried to sew and mend their uniforms so that they would resemble those of the guards. The length to which prisoners would go in these efforts seemed unbelievable, particularly since the SS punished them for their efforts to copy SS uniforms. When asked why they did it, the old prisoners admitted that they loved to look like the guards.”

“We have people like that in here,” said a student from the back laconically.

The class glared at the student seated next to me.

Prisoners, even those who may have committed murder, give these psychopaths a wide berth, especially those who touched and manipulated dead bodies, whether that meant killing with their hands or handling or mutilating the corpse. I have met few prisoners who advocated the total abolition of prisons, with most conceding that there were psychopaths and killers who would always be dangerous. But they also stressed that this was primarily a mental health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. These prisoners made up only 5 percent, or less, of most prison populations.

Kuklinski, who worked as a hitman for the Gambino crime family and who died in March 2006 at the age of seventy, specialized in the desecration of his victim’s corpses. On February 1, 1980, he shot a business associate, George Malliband, with a .38 revolver five times in the left side of his chest, killing him. Kuklinski crammed Malliband’s three-hundred-pound bulk into a fifty-five-gallon oil drum, slicing Malliband’s tendons on one leg to snap his knee to close the lid. He rolled the barrel off a cliff in Jersey City, where the decayed corpse was discovered a few days later.

Once Sincere wrote about what he knew—and it was not the criminal underworld—he was brilliant.

In Sincere’s hands, Kuklinski became a violent drug dealer named Push. Push is slang for being killed, or pushed to the other world. Sincere dramatized Kuklinski’s murders, including thrusting a body into a fifty-five-gallon oil drum, but little of the dialogue rang true—even to me, who had no experience in what my students called “the game.” Once Sincere wrote about what he knew—and it was not the criminal underworld—he was brilliant. And there were writers in the class, such as Steph, taciturn and acutely perceptive, and Boris, a lyrical writer, who clearly did know the game and produced gritty scripts that brought to life the sordid world of police, hustlers, drug dealers, addicts, hookers, and street thugs.

Timmy, whom I had told the previous week to write about being the product of rape, had written a dialogue, using his legal name of Terrance, about chopping yams in the kitchen with his mother and half brother. I handed him the scene and asked him to read it to the class. He lifted his six-foot-three, 180-pound frame from his seat and began to read:

MOTHER. I hope you don’t love dem yams like dat bird you begged me for a couple of years ago. You loved it fer what? Two weeks? Poor little thing starved to death. What was the name of that bird?

TERRANCE. Tweety.

BROTHER. ’Member da day he brought that mangy street dog home?

MOTHER. Oh, Lord. I wanted to choke that dog an’ Terrance. An’ he let dat dirty thing up on my sofa. Took me two weeks to get the smell outta da house. An’ he smelled as bad as dat dog by the time I got dat creature outta here.

TERRANCE. Y’all styling. Wasn’t that bad.

MOTHER. Now, boy, hand me dat knife, and let me finish dem yams. Neither of you gonna find no woman take care of you like your ma. So you better learn to do fer yerself ’cause you don’t learn how to cook, you ain’t gonna eat.

BROTHER. I be cookin’ for Terrance when he grown, Ma, fer sure.

TERRANCE. This from the dude nearly burned down the house tryin to make us French toast.

MOTHER. Now look how thin I cut deez yams. Jus’ like my mama taught me.

TERRANCE. Grandma, she live fer Jesus. All I know is the truth . . .

ALL THREE IN UNISON. Before I lie to you, I’ll say bye to you.

MOTHER. She was a Christian woman. She always tryin’ to beat the black off yer uncle Robert.

TERRANCE. That wouldn’t be hard, yella as Uncle Robert was.

MOTHER. That’s why he so yella. He used to be black as daddy.

“These little moments are what I am looking for,” I told the class when Timmy finished. “Intimate glimpses of life conveyed through dialogue in dramatic form.”

In this class, we discussed the 1964 play Dutchman, written by Amiri Baraka, known at the time as LeRoi Jones. It was also the class when the supervisor of the prison education program, Toby Sanders, sat in. Toby was a graduate of Morehouse College and had a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. Teaching Dutchman in his presence was a bit unnerving, because his knowledge of Black literature, culture, and history was vastly superior to my own. I would glance in his direction throughout the class to try to read his facial expressions to make sure I wasn’t too off the mark. Fortunately, Toby was as generous as he was erudite.

I handed out Baraka’s manifesto “The Revolutionary Theater,” which had been commissioned by the New York Times in 1965 but rejected for publication, along with Robert Crumb’s controversial comic “When the Niggers Take Over America.” Crumb, a founder of the first underground comix publication, Zap Comix, had also done a comic called “When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America.” He expressed in savage satire the same white hatred and terror of the Black male that lay at the heart of Dutchman. This terror is a reflexive feeling among many whites—even white liberals who cannot shake it and yet, often unconsciously, are ashamed of it.

Not long before the class, there had been a food drive in Princeton, New Jersey, for the food pantry in Trenton, which was running low on stock. As I handed over some supplies to the woman collecting the donations in downtown Princeton, she thanked me and said: “We have to keep the pantry in Trenton full, or they’ll be coming here.” That was, at least, an honest expression of the motivation for the pitiful acts of charity by those with white privilege.

As I handed over some supplies to the woman collecting the donations in downtown Princeton, she thanked me and said: “We have to keep the pantry in Trenton full, or they’ll be coming here.”

“Coming here?” I replied. “That would be the best news I heard in a long time.”

Black rage, along with white hatred and terror of Black men, are the central themes of Dutchman. They define the impasse of race relations in the United States, one masked by rhetoric about equality, tolerance, affirmative action, desegregation, and a postracial America. As James Baldwin writes, because this terror and hatred of Black men is unexamined by white society, because it is a product not of reality but of depraved racial fantasies, it festers like a moral cancer, impoverishing and degrading the souls of the white majority and marginalizing and endangering the lives of the Black minority. When the New York Times theater critic Howard Taubman reviewed Dutchman in March 1964, he dismissed it as “an explosion of hatred rather than a play.”

“LeRoi Jones, as he was then known, feverishly pounded out the play in a couple of days,” I said to the class. “Why does he set the play underground on a subway?”

The class thought for a moment.

“Because a Black man is always in some sense trapped underground?” Lawrence asked in his guttural, raspy voice. “Because once the doors shut, he can’t get off? Because the subway car is like a prison?”

“Exactly,” I said.

There are two main characters: a white woman, Lula, who is thirty, and a well-dressed, twenty-year-old Black man, Clay, who is a poet. Lula is the temptress, seeking to ignite Clay’s sexual passions and lure him into the taboo of miscegenation. Lula flirts outrageously. She repeatedly asks him to invite her to a party.

“Now, you say to me, ‘Lula, Lula, why don’t you go to this party with me tonight?’ It’s your turn, and let those be your lines,” she says.

The temptation—Lula is constantly eating an apple, evoking the biblical Eve’s fatal flirtation with evil—begins from the moment the play opens, when Clay sees Lula eyeing him from the subway station platform.

I asked two students to read the parts.

LULA. Weren’t you staring at me through the window?

CLAY. [Wheeling around and very much stiffened] What?

LULA. Weren’t you staring at me through the window? At the last stop?

CLAY. Staring at you? What do you mean?

LULA. Don’t you know what staring means?

CLAY. I saw you through the window . . . if that’s what it means. I don’t know if I was staring. Seems to me you were staring through the window at me.

LULA. I was. But only after I’d turned around and saw you staring through that window down in the vicinity of my ass and legs.

CLAY. Really?

LULA. Really. I guess you were just taking those idle potshots. Nothing else to do. Run your mind over people’s flesh.

CLAY. Oh, boy. Wow, now I admit I was looking in your direction. But the rest of that weight is yours.

LULA. I suppose.

CLAY. Staring through train windows is weird business. Much weirder than staring very sedately at abstract asses.

LULA. That’s why I came looking through the window . . . so you’d have more than that to go on. I even smiled at you.

CLAY. That’s right.

LULA. I even got into this train, going some other way than mine. Walked down the aisle . . . searching you out.

CLAY. Really? That’s pretty funny.

LULA. That’s pretty funny . . . God, you’re dull.

CLAY. Well, I’m sorry, lady, but I really wasn’t prepared for party talk.

LULA. No, you’re not. What are you prepared for? [Wrapping the apple core in a Kleenex and dropping it on the floor.]

CLAY. [Takes her conversation as pure sex talk. He turns to confront her squarely with this idea.] I’m prepared for anything. How about you?

LULA. [Laughing loudly and cutting it off abruptly.] What do you think you’re doing?

CLAY. What?

LULA. You think I want to pick you up, get you to take me somewhere and screw me, huh?

CLAY. Is that the way I look?

LULA. You look like you been trying to grow a beard. That’s exactly what you look like. You look like you live in New Jersey with your parents and are trying to grow a beard. That’s what. You look like you’ve been reading Chinese poetry and drinking lukewarm sugarless tea. [Laughs, uncrossing and recrossing her legs.] You look like death eating a soda cracker.

“Why is Clay so frightened?” I asked.

“White society justifies violence against Black men on the supposed sexual desires they have for white women,” Boris answered immediately. “Clay’s being set up. His survival depends on him assuming the humiliating role of a second-class citizen assigned to him by whites.”

“Right,” I said. “And so, what is the power dynamic here?”

“Lula wants to get him to express lust for her,” Sincere said. “It gives her the power over him of life and death.”

“Who can tell me the story of Emmett Till?” I asked.

Steph, who spoke rarely, raised his hand from his seat in the last row.

“Nineteen fifty-five,” he said. “Emmett Till was a fourteen-year-old kid from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi. A white woman said he whistled at her and said lewd things to her. Till gets abducted, badly beaten, shot in the head, and his body gets tossed in a river. Till’s mama took the body back to Chicago. She holds a funeral with an open casket and invites the public to see the body. Tens of thousands of people show up. Black newspapers print photographs of Till’s mutilated face. Blacks see they will never get justice waiting for white people to give it to them. They have to organize. Rosa Parks was at a rally for Till held by Martin Luther King. After that rally, she refuses to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Rosa Parks says that the whole time she’s bein’ told to get to the back of the bus, she kept thinking ’bout Till and couldn’t go back there. That started the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Black boys and men were always lynched to supposedly protect the purity of white women. That’s always the excuse.”

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Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison, by Chris Hedges, will be published by S&S on October 19th.

Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent and bureau chief in the Middle East and the Balkans for fifteen years for The New York Times. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is host of the Emmy Award­–nominated RT America show On Contact. Hedges, who holds a Master of Divinity from Harvard University, is the author of numerous books and was a National Book Critics Circle finalist for War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, and the University of Toronto. He has taught college credit courses through Rutgers University since 2013 in the New Jersey prison system.





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