This startling and abrasive prison drama by the author of “I Am a Man” (slated for future broadcast on HBO) is an impressive addition to the growing canon of an African-American playwright increasing in prominence and influence. Bleak and depressing themes, extensive onstage violence and raunchy language will doubtless limit future productions to those theaters with a taste for controversy and adventure. But this fictionalized treatment of the real-life experiences of Angelo Herndon in a 1932 Georgia jail is a searing piece of theater with the capacity to profoundly disturb even the most complacent audience member (and with the right ensemble of actors, it would make a startling movie).
Set entirely in the multi-occupant cell No. 7 at Georgia’s Fulton Tower Jail, Oyamo’s drama concerns itself with black criminals who receive neither compassion nor due process. As a result, the physically strongest inmates essentially run the jail, dominating and abusing weaker prisoners and insisting on various rituals of behavior.
Based on true events, “Let Me Live” explores the plight of Herndon (Craig Boyd), an educated and communist-leaning activist who is thrust into this subhuman environment, where the brutality of the oppressive society outside has turned the inmate-victims into self-loathing monsters. The initially optimistic Herndon tries to organize his comrades, but he is stymied and ultimately defeated by a degraded climate that prevails both in and outside the cell. The playwright’s main point is that when the justice system treats the incarcerated as animals, that’s precisely how they will behave.
There are quieter moments of real poignancy here — especially when the cell’s residents break into snatches of song. But “Let Me Live” is mainly a collection of fights, beatings, cursings and struggles for the mind to overpower brute force. There are obscene drawings on the cell-block walls, references to the stench of a dead man left in the cell overnight, and discussion of the disposal of bodily fluids and the other realities of prison life.
But Oyamo writes with a lyrical sensibility (he recalls August Wilson, although Oyamo’s more politically driven plays are too violent and tension-filled for much poetic contemplation). And the quality of the writing is matched by a terrific ensemble production at the Goodman, in collaboration with the much smaller Onyx Theater Ensemble. Thanks to the impassioned direction of Ron O.J. Parson, a uniformly excellent cast of middle-aged men capture all of this play’s violent tension. Designer Lori Fong immerses the audience in the visual world of the prison, and the overall effect of this powerful show is both memorable and disturbing.