How a Visit to San Quentin Prison Became Off-Brodway’s Lockdown

Interview   How a Visit to San Quentin Prison Became Off-Brodway’s Lockdown
Playwright Cori Thomas’ chance encounter at a prison led to her newest play at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and a whole new outlook on the incarcerated.
Cori Thomas
Cori Thomas Marc J. Franklin

When Cori Thomas’ husband passed away unexpectedly, she found herself not only grieving, but unable to write. The playwright (When January Feels Like Summer, Citizens Market) spent three years battling writers’ block until one day, a visit to San Quentin State Prison changed her life—and her craft—forever.

Here, Playbill chats with Thomas about her new piece Lockdown, which follows the friendship between a writer and an incarcerated man. The play runs at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater Off-Broadway through May 19. Kent Gash directs.

Playbill: What brought you to San Quentin in the first place?
Cori Thomas: I was there with two producers working on a podcast. The project never came to fruition, but while we were there that day, we were speaking to different people in the prison. One of the men began telling me about a program he runs, and how in the past, they'd put on a play. He wanted to do another theatre piece and asked if I was interested in working on it with him. I gave him my number and email, which just goes to show how ignorant I was because he wouldn't have been able to call or email me.

Keith Randolph Smith, Eric Berryman, and Zenzi Williams in Lockdwon at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
Keith Randolph Smith, Eric Berryman, and Zenzi Williams in Lockdwon at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater Sandra Coudert

I didn't think I'd ever hear from him again but I did leave that day knowing that I wanted to write a play about prison. What I had found was so unlike what I had expected. I walked through the yard and the first thing I noticed was how many men of color there were—it was stark. Another few things struck me, like toilets without doors, but mostly, I felt ashamed about what my expectations about the people had been. These men were intelligent, articulate, and the most polite I'd met anywhere in life. I felt ashamed that I hadn't known that.

So you began writing the play?
As fate would happen, Rattlestick commissioned me shortly after. I began writing a terrible play about death row. It was all Google searches and not organic in any way. How could it be? I had spent two hours in a prison. But I spent three months on the play and then one day out of the blue I got a call from a supervisor at the prison. He asked me if I was working with Lonnie Morris, the man I'd met earlier in San Quentin.

I hadn't yet connected the dots between the piece I was writing and the opportunity to help him out with his play, but when I decided to go and work with him, and when I told Lonnie what my play was about, he asked me why I thought death row was more dramatic than his story—someone who had been incarcerated for 42 years. I realized he was right and that I needed to change my play.

What did you change the focus to?
I wanted to talk about the effects on somebody who's pretty much lived their entire life in prison. I met men who were 16 when they entered San Quentin and now they're 40. People change. What I'm also trying to do with Lockdown is to humanize people; for audiences to feel as if the incarcerated men in the play feel like people they know. One man in San Quentin said to me: "I wish people on the outside saw us as individuals." That broke my heart because I realized I hadn't and that most people don't.

So Lonnie helped you, and you helped him write his play?
We're still working on it. We're creating a play using the transcripts of interviews with incarcerated men. It will use their own words.

Curt Morlaye and Keith Randolph Smith in <i>Lockdown </i>
Curt Morlaye and Keith Randolph Smith in Lockdown Sandra Coudert

How much time do you spend with Lonnie?
[In the beginning] I would be with him for about eight hours a day, six days a week. But it wasn't just the two of us, I met a lot of the other men and they all ended up contributing to Lockdown. They shared very vulnerable aspects of their lives with me and their DNA is totally through the play. That was a gift, and Lockdown honors them.

Tell me about the program Lonnie runs in San Quentin.
He runs a program called No More Tears that's geared towards the younger incarcerated people to prevent recidivism (inmates returning). Part of the program offers workshops in exchange for credits that go toward their parole. Another component, the Healing Circle, invites outsiders to come in, frequently victims of crimes, and they stand up and tell their stories. In turn, incarcerated people will share details of the crimes they committed. Another initiative, which is called Restorative Justice, asks victims and perpetrators of crimes to come face to face.

No More Tears has got a really amazing record: Of the 5,000 men who have gone through the program, 300 have been released and none of them have returned.

Lockdown, which is presented in association with ShadowCatcher Entertainment, continues at Rattlestick through May 19. Each performance is followed by a Q&A with speakers who have firsthand knowledge and expertise in criminal justice reform. The cast of Lockdown is made up of Eric Berryman, Curt Morlaye, Keith Randolph Smith, and Zenzi Williams.

Pre-show music is provided by the San Quentin Mixtapes. Community partners include: Drama Club; The Fortune Society; NYC Together; Pen America; Project Liberation; and RTA (Rehabilitation Through the Arts).

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