Friday, November 28, 2008

Play of the Week: Our Country's Good

This is a re-post of last Friday's entry which was delayed by technical difficulties.

In 1788 British prison ships arrive at Botany Bay, Australia. Many of the prisoners have been convicted of minor theft (stealing a loaf of bread was crime enough to earn deportation) and many of their wardens are military men who fought and lost the war against the American colonies. Both groups sense they have been condemned to exile.
At a time of extremely low supplies, barbaric punishments, and low hopes, Lieutenant Ralph Clark is assigned to stage a production of George Farquhar's comedy "The Recruiting Officer."

Using convicts, many of them illiterate, as his cast, Clark has to learn to see them as equals in his task of sharing theater’s civilizing influence. The project immediately meets with opposition among the other officers alienating Clark from many of his superiors. As rehearsals progress, the convicts find themselves questioning the way their society has defined them, allowing Clark to understand the importance of his task. In the end, the convicts and Clark alike are able to find their self worth by transcending their realities through the theatre.

Our Country's Good has always resonated with prison inmates. Timberlake Wertenbaker worked closely with some prisoners in the development of the piece. But beyond that, Our Country's Good has had a healthy performance history in prisons and the response has always been strong. When working on the play myself, I had many audience members come up to me who worked with inmates and compared the play to their experiences. I also had several actors who saw the show tell me how they had done workshops of the play with inmates and that the experience of working with them was very similar to seeing the show itself.

The play continues to be performed in or in conjunction with prisons and convicts. I have heard of several stories too of people who have worked with convicts saying that the sentiments in this play really relate some of what it is like to be dehumanized by the prison systems. There is something that resonates true about the importance of freedom of the human spirit and how theatre can help liberate that spirit.

Wertenbaker has touched on something very human in fighting the oppression of the soul. Little gestures can make such a big difference in keeping your identity. A single act of kindness make all the difference.

Happy Birthday: (November 30) David Mamet (b. 1947), Mark Twain (1835-1910) & Mandy Patinkin (b. 1952)

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