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Drama of Death Row: "Broken Morning"

Drama of Death Row: "Broken Morning"

Playwright Chiori Miyagawa is one of the most original voices in New York theatre. After an initial splash with the Michael Mayer-directed "America Dreaming" (with music by Tan Dun and featuring a then-unknown Billy Crudup), she has been on the razor's edge of downtown theatre with recent works like "Woman Killer," "Awakening" and "Jamaica Avenue." Besides co-helming (with director Sonoka Kawahara) the multicultural group Crossing Jamaica Avenue, Miyagawa is also a respected theater teacher, including stints at Yale, NYU and, most recently, Bard College, where she is an associate professor.

We recently had a sit-down with the very-busy Miyagawa, who was in the midst of rehearsals for the Feb. 20 NYC premiere at the HERE Arts Center of her play "Broken Morning," a vibrant, theatrical portrait of people on and around death row in Texas, as well as preparation for a reading of her newest play, a work about 19th-century astronomer Caroline Herschel called "Comet Hunter," which will be heard on March 5 and 6 as part of the Ensemble Studio Theater's First Light Festival.

Unlike the crosstown hit "The Exonerated," with which it shares general subject matter, "Broken Morning" -- written in 1996 under a grant from the Dallas Theater Center -- offers a much more balanced approach to the complex issue, since the playwright interviewed not only inmates awaiting execution, but also guards, victims' families, the warden, and others. In addition to having five actors (George Hannah, Brian Nishii, Sophia Skiles, Kaipo Schwab, Margi Sharp) playing 24 parts that often cross race, age and gender, she and Kawahara have turned certain monologues into songs by company members Mark Campbell and Daniel Sonenberg -- infusing the production with a touching theatricality.

In today's feature, we get Miyagawa's views on interviewing death row inmates, reality theater, and the one quality she and her director look for in an actor.

BackStage.com: How did you begin the process of creating "Broken Morning"?

Chiori Miyagawa: In 1995 I read this article in the New York Times about these men on death row at Huntsville State Prison in Texas. The article described this sewing factory inside the prison that was operated by the inmates. And I thought life couldn't get any more surreal: These men, who were awaiting execution, were going to work every morning, working all day, then going back and watching TV or exercising as if that was real life. So I wanted to talk to these men, and find out what their thoughts were while they were sewing at the same time they were waiting for an appeal or execution.

I wrote a letter to the Dallas Theater Center, saying, 'I would like to go talk to these men on death row. Can you help me?' They thought that it was an interesting idea, so they applied for a TCG [Theatre Communications Group] grant, called the Extended Collaboration Grant, and we got it.

[In 1996], with that support, I traveled to Huntsville five or six times and talked to a dozen men on death row, as well as the people around death row, like prison guards, captains, the warden, chaplains -- people whose business is the death row.

Then we contacted this organization in Dallas called Victims Outreach. They put the word out that a playwright was looking to talk to victims' families. And some women responded, so I was able to talk to victims' families. All that went into the play, and we did a presentation at the Dallas Theater Center.

BS: Were any of the people that you interviewed at the performance?

CM: No.

BS: None at all?

CM: Well, the prisoners obviously could not come, but I think [the other] people were more interested in telling me their stories because they had a need to tell their stories. It was the same for the prisoners as well: They weren't interested in seeing the result. Also, most of the prisoners, I think, had no idea what a playwright did or what it meant for their stories to be in a play. They just wanted to talk.

BS: How did you get their confidence? What did you do to put them at ease, so they would open up to you?

CM: I never asked questions about their crime. I usually started with introducing myself and asking them about their childhood, where they came from, where they were born, where they grew up, what they remembered fondly from their childhood, what was difficult. They talked about their personal history, and they were comfortable with that.

Some of them ventured into talking about their crimes, but not the particular crime that they were on death row for -- rather, they would talk about their previous crimes. And none of them admitted to being guilty because, I assume, their cases are all in appeal. I was very careful not to get an answer on that -- 'Are you guilty, or are you innocent?' -- so I think that once they sensed that I was not going to try to get important information out of them, that I was just interested in their life stories, they felt comfortable.

BS: Can you give me examples of your experiences with these people?

CM: [The characters] that ended up in the play were, of course, the memorable people. One was this man from Samoa. He was a very big man, and kind of slow in his speech. He didn't really look at me. He was remorseful -- not because he admitted to the crime, but because he feared that dying would not bring good results for him if he didn't get to go to heaven. He seemed tired of life, and he said once: 'I just want a little air, a little peace,' which seemed poetic to me. He had a difficult childhood. He was raised by his uncle, who was abusive, and got him started on drinking. There was a sadness to him. He missed Samoa. He was in a foreign land in a prison.

Another person I remember is a young man who was a college student when he committed his crime. His crime seemed brutal, but I remember thinking, 'He doesn't seem so brutal at all.' He was a small white man. He seemed docile and shy. [Apparently] he was robbing houses and stealing money, and one time he broke into his ex-classmate's house -- she was there sleeping -- and she woke up. He shot her in the head and then tried to retrieve the bullet by probing her head with a knife. When he realized he couldn't accomplish that, he poured gasoline over her body and set it on fire. That story is in the play.

But there was this strange moment when I was talking to him. The inmates are completely separated from the interviewer, physically. In the middle of the room there is an enclosed island where the inmates come in, and I was sitting outside of that island. There was a clear sense of who was inside and who was outside. And he was talking about Jesus. He said to me, 'I don't know if you've found Jesus yet.' [In his voice] there was a little bit of concern or judgment that I was going to hell if I didn't find Jesus. That was a really ironic moment.

BS: What was your criteria for selecting the stories to include?

CM: The stories I selected were not based on any criteria, except that they were the stories that were memorable to me. Also, they were stories that I felt were honest.

Some inmates are very used to talking to the media because this is a huge media business, apparently. They have a publicity office. They have constant visitors -- mostly from European television, because Europeans consider capital punishment extremely barbaric and curious. Every time a television crew comes, apparently there is a group of people who always come out and give them their schpiel. I wasn't interested in talking to those people.

So I asked [the publicity office] to select a group of people who are racially diverse and who are not the usual volunteers. So, I think I got some stories that are honest and unique. I think part of the reason they were interested in talking to me was because they were specifically asked.

BS: Did you ever get the sense that any of these people had an agenda or were trying to justify or rationalize what they did? And if you did, how were you able to get past that?

CM: From most of the people, I did not get any sense of them wanting something from me; most people were just curious what I was going to ask. So there were surprisingly moving stories and details of their lives that they shared with me. [However,] I think they knew that this wasn't going to help their case in any way -- they didn't even understand what theater and plays are about. We didn't have any cameras and we were not taking pictures. In that way, my talks with most of these men seemed pure to me.

BS: Did you talk with any women?

CM: I talked to one woman. There were seven women at the time on death row in Texas, and they were in a separate prison. [Apparently] these women had made a pact not talk to any press unless everyone agreed to do so. So they had not given any interviews for many, many years.

I wrote them a letter, saying, 'I'm not with the press, I'm a playwright. And nothing realistic that you tell me would go into my play.' Meaning that, they would not be exposed -- [what they said] would be filtered through my writing and my perception and view of things, and their names would not be used.

And one woman wrote me back and said, 'Yes.' [It seems] they agreed that, since it was not television, they didn't have to keep the pact, and if this one woman wanted to talk to me, it was acceptable. So I was very fortunate. The press department was surprised the woman agreed to talk to me.

[In fact,] this woman and I corresponded for a while after that. And this is something I learned: Life in incarceration is so different. Of course, I knew that intellectually. But going there and meeting these people made this strange, parallel life a reality. And now I am constantly aware that as I live my life, there are people who are incarcerated living this parallel life of imprisonment.

[After I left] Texas, I write this play and I'm teaching, and my life moves forward. And I lose track of time. So there was a gap between the time when I received [this woman's] last letter and when I could write her back, because I was very busy. And I think that was a mistake. Because there is no understanding on her part that I'm too busy. It's not that I am neglecting her, it's not that I don't want to be her friend, but by the time I wrote to her, I think she felt betrayed. She never wrote me back.

I wrote to her a couple of times after that. I'm reasonably sure she's still there, because even though a woman did get executed after that, it was not the woman that I met... So, she is probably still there, but she doesn't want to communicate with me anymore.

BS: How was the experience of talking with the inmates different than talking with the guards?

CM: I approached them basically the same. But my experience talking with the inmates -- from my point of view -- was more emotionally intimate. They shared personal stories. I think [the inmates] had nothing to lose, in a sense -- this was an opportunity for them to tell their stories, which they probably didn't tell to too many inmates and they certainly weren't telling the guards. So they didn't have anything else at stake but this moment of being able to share their stories.

Guards, chaplains, captains, warden -- those people had jobs, so they were a little more guarded. They did not share personal stories; they shared their personal views about capital punishment. But their stories were not as three dimensional in that way. They presented to me their opinions in the context of their role.

BS: In the play, the inmates and other characters interact. Do these men interact? Did you see any of this, or is it fictionalized?

CM: The men I talked to, they work at the sewing factory, so they see each other and they do interact with each other, but I never witnessed their interaction. My communication was always one to one.

BS: Did you see the sewing center?

CM: I did. They actually let me in there. That was interesting. I felt... The air was really tense. I am sure it was strange for them.

BS: You mean the men were there when you went in?

CM: Yes. They opened this huge gate, unlocked massive things, and then we went in. I was the only woman -- possibly the only woman in the factory for a long time. This is Texas, I'm Asian... I think it was very strange. The men would look at me, but their look was completely controlled. It was pointed, but any hostility or sexual tension or anything like that was very carefully controlled. But it was still intense.

BS: You've added a character who wasn't in the original play, the Writer. Why did you feel you needed that character?

CM: That was my director, Sonoko Kawahara's, concept... When we were brainstorming, it seemed obvious at certain points that these people were telling their stories not to a general audience but to one person specifically. So we created two layers of reality: As the play is happening, the Writer is listening to these stories and writing the play. That is one level of reality. Sonoko is staging it that, simultaneously, as the play is being written, the play has already been written and a group of four actors are performing the play.

Also, [we have] the Writer give introductions and some of the stage directions because we cast four actors, who are company actors, and they play 24 roles, resulting in race-, age-, and gender-crossing. So we needed a reference point: When a white woman comes on stage and she's a black man, we needed to clarify that.

BS: Why so few actors in this case?

CM: Well, we were trying to achieve some kind of universal theme. When it was done in Dallas, I didn't have 24 actors, I had nine, but they were roughly playing who they are -- race-, age-, and gender-wise. But I wasn't very excited. [At the time] it seemed like that was because I couldn't have the 24 actors. (laughs)

This time, we are abandoning all that and making another statement, which is: Anyone can end up on each side of the fence. So, by casting this way, I think, we were making the stories universal.

BS: What is the significance of the title itself?

CM: "Broken Morning" comes from the first song, which was originally a monologue. It's about this woman who had two children, one of whom was a girl, and one night someone broke the window and kidnapped her daughter. She didn't hear it. She didn't know [what had happened] until the morning. When she went into the children's bedroom, there were broken pieces of glass and her daughter was gone. She discovered this in the morning, and it had taken place during the night.

[On a more figurative level,] in a sense, most of the prisoners have a shattered life -- one moment of their lives, at least, but more like continuous moments. A lot of them were abused; they were mostly terribly poor. So there were moments of disappointment that they lived with all their lives -- maybe every morning when they woke up -- until they got to this place, death row. So that's the general metaphor for the title.

BS: For this production, you added songs by company members Mark Campbell (lyrics) and Dan Sonenberg (composer). Why did you choose to include songs, and what role do they play in relation to the whole piece?

CM: The songs are based on existing monologues. I chose those monologues for theatrical reasons. When you're dealing with actual spoken words -- though I edited them, I'm basically faithful to the content and language -- sometimes those words don't transfer well to theatrical words, and they become somehow less true, even though those were the [original] words.

Certain monologues were better when they were converted to song, because then those words that seemed melodramatic, for example, or sentimental took on theatrical license when they were sung.

BS: The play takes a mostly balanced approach to the subject. Do you feel it was your responsibility to be balanced?

CM: Yes, that was definitely my intention. I am against capital punishment, but I don't necessarily put that view in the play. It was important to me that I gave voice to everyone, on all sides of the story.

BS: Political views, especially about something as controversial as capital punishment, can be very personal. What are the advantages or disadvantages to having people with different political viewpoints in the cast and crew of a play like this?

CM: In some ways, it would be more comfortable if we all agree. Although I have not surveyed the team, my feeling is that probably all the actors are against capital punishment. But I'm not sure how crucial that is for them, compared to some other issues they feel passionate about.

I don't think it's productive if there is friction. I think we all -- even with Sonoko, who has slightly different point of view -- agree on the humanity of the issue. So, in a way, I don't think, when you are doing a reality-based drama, it is helpful to have political friction...

I think this is a very challenging and interesting journey for the actors because they are playing victims, they are playing the oppressor/perpetrator, and they are also playing a guard. Everyone plays different sides of the issue. I think they will, hopefully, get a holistic view of the event of the play.

BS: Even though you wrote this play many years ago, there are now other works dealing with capital punishment, most recently "The Exonerated." What do you think of that play and the idea of 'reality theater'?

CM: I really enjoyed "The Exonerated." I saw it recently. I was engaged and I was moved. "The Exonerated" presents a very specific point of view, political point of view, which I agree with: That there is injustice in an error, a grave error, in the system. That was very clearly accomplished.

[However,] I'm trying to do something else. I'm trying to just tell the stories of these people. What I would like the audience to think about is the larger picture of balance in America, which includes child abuse and poverty and all kinds of hardships. So my play isn't only specifically about capital punishment.

I think [reality theater] is a difficult form of theater, and this relates to our discussion about the songs. Part of the reason is that... I realized that taking ["Broken Morning"] slightly out of reality -- you know, people speaking transcribed words -- would give the play a theatrical life. And "The Exonerated," I understand, is totally based on transcripts and is very successful, but it seems like a testimony. And that is not what I was doing.

I think it's a difficult thing to do what you call 'reality theater.' I think the risks are becoming preachy, and also somehow not being able to serve the truth in the theatrical form, because I think you need to step [up] from people sitting and talking to you to putting it on stage and the audience looking at it. What that step is is different in each piece, but I think it's a complex step.

BS: Can you clarify?

CM: [It's complex] because there is an issue of preserving the integrity of the original material. There is an issue of transforming it into a form of art, which is what we were doing, and what truth is gained in that transformation and what truth is lost in that transformation. I think all those things are different in each piece.

BS: Most of your plays that I have seen tend to be non-linear. What attracts you to non-linear storytelling?

CM: You know, I think I try to make myself be linear sometimes, but it doesn't happen. I think I see the world in sort of a fragmented, poetic way. It's very hard for me to entertain myself with linear storytelling of my own writing. I mean I enjoy other people's linear storytelling, but when I attempt it, I'm missing part of myself. Like time-shifting, ghosts, or memory -- things that I'm really attached to.

For me, in order to accommodate my fancy of what the world is, it works better for me. I think life contains strange things that we don't even understand, comprehend or even see. This may come from an Eastern view of the world -- ancestors, spirits living with you, that kind of thing.

BS: What do you look for in actors?

CM: In actors, Sonoko and I look for people with imagination. By that I mean people who are not locked into realistic expectations of how we all behave. We are not interested in putting something on stage that looks exactly like real life. I'm not interested in imitating life. I think what happens on stage has to be different, heightened or bigger than life.

There is something sacred about performing. If you go back, way back, I think performing was channeling. So, we look for actors who channel. We do not look for actors who can smoke cigarettes realistically on stage -- [we look for] somebody who can abandon this dimension, this time frame, this space.

A Crossing Jamaica Avenue production, "Broken Morning" is playing at the HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Ave. (Spring St.), NYC, from Feb. 20 to March 16. (212-647-0202)

A commission of the Alfred Sloan Foundation, "Comet Hunter" will be read on March 5 and 6 as part of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's First Light Festival, 549 West 52nd Street NYC. (212-247-4982)

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