Tough Stuff

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Brett C. Leonard's Unconditional takes an uncompromising look at racism and rage, love and betrayal in the lives of nine New Yorkers.
Brett C. Leonard
Brett C. Leonard Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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You know they wouldn't let me go to school
You know I couldn't read or write
You know they gave me the mule
Then they called me a fool.…

You know they turned around and hung me
Hung me from the tallest oak tree
You talk about terror
Talk about terror
I've been terrorized all my days.

It was while listening to Willie King's "Terrorize" that the opening scene for a play came into the head of Brett C. Leonard: the image of one man preparing to lynch another. But the man with a noose around his neck is white, as is Leonard, who will turn 40 just a few days after his Unconditional, directed by Mark Wing-Davey, has its world premiere (Feb. 18, after previews from Feb. 10) as a LAByrinth Theater Company presentation at The Public Theater's LuEsther Hall.

"I just got that image listening to that song," says Leonard. "The depth of his — Willie King's — anger and lifelong frustration; the racism that affects everyone's life." There was one other key to that shock-effect confrontation, in which the other man is black and full of rage at being ousted from his airline job three months short of age 50 and his pension.

"Three years ago I was on an airplane from Atlanta to New York and got talking with the young black woman sitting next to me. Her mother, who'd worked 25 years for the airlines, had not only been fired from her job just a few weeks short of her pension, but a noose had been placed at the mother's desk. Yeah," says Leonard with gallows humor, "nooses are making a comeback."

He's well aware that as an opener "it's like sinking the boat at the beginning of 'Titanic' and working backwards from there. I put my scenes on 3-by-5 cards and shuffle them around, so" — three weeks from opening night — "it could still change, but I figure this is the strongest way to grab an audience by the neck."

There are eight or nine other short, tough dramas within Unconditional — sex, money, a spot of murder, men and women black and white — but none you would want to take home to mother.

"I like all of them," says the man who dreamed them up. "I don't like their actions, but I like the people who are taking those actions."

Even the killer with the golf club? "Yeah, he's misunderstood."

Leonard, who started writing plays at UC San Diego and then went into "ten years of 'research' — lost years," started "writing seriously" when he reached New York in 2000. This is his second play for LAByrinth, of which he's been a member since 2003; the first was Guinea Pig Solo, Georg Buchner's intense 1836 searchlight on militarism, Woyzeck, transposed to the modern day.

Everybody at LAByrinth, from co-artistic directors John Ortiz, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Gould Rubin on down, acts, writes and/or directs. Aspiring playwrights don't get commissions, but they do get workshops during the LAB's annual two-week "summer intensive." It was at the 2006 intensive at Bennington College that Unconditional first saw life. And what did Brett Leonard learn? "That there is underwriting and overwriting."

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