When the Rattlestick Theater commissioned playwright and San Quentin volunteer Cori Thomas to write a play in 2016, she penned a draft featuring a 62-year-old man who has been incarcerated since he was 16 called Lockdown. At the time, she had never visited a prison or envisioned having her first play, which debuted in New York City, become a tool for discussion about the criminal justice system.
“It’s about a group of people who are incarcerated and the challenges they face—individually and within the system itself,” said Daniella Topol, the artistic director for the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, who commissioned Thomas. “The play is also now about some- thing much larger: forgiveness, humanity and empathy.”
Thomas added, “It’s becoming a tool for prison reform conversations.”
Lockdown, which runs at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater from April 17 to May 19, unless extended, shows the difficulty of earning freedom for a man serving a life sentence for committing a heinous crime, even though the man turned his life around and mentors youth.
“Forgiveness is a really hard thing,” Thomas said. “I made sure to go into the victim’s point of view. I want to make sure the audience sees both sides, what’s it like to suffer loss. But I think that when a person has remorse and has had a transformation because they now understand what it is that they have done, they can’t forget. They live with that forever, and that’s a form of punishment.”
After each performance, the Fortune Society, an organization dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated people become successful on parole, will host discussions with the community about issues raised in the play. Different stakeholders, including formerly incarcerated people, will lead the conversations.
Lockdown, starring Zenzi Williams, Keith Randolph Smith, Eric Berryman and Curtis Morlaye, is Thomas’ first world premiere to debut in New York City, although the accomplished Marymount- Manhattan College theater program graduate has penned several others over the years.
Her first big break was a play called “When January Feels Like Summer.” It won an American Theater Critics Award, and Sundance chose it for a development retreat. It premiered in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Lockdown may go even further than her past plays. It was chosen for the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and Thomas said commercial producers like Shadow Catcher Entertainment are interested in taking it to bigger theaters.
“Everything that happens with this play, I get happy because I feel like it honors the men inside,” Thomas said. “If it’s being recognized, they’re being recognized.”
Lockdown isn’t Thomas’ only play aimed to spark change.
“Pa’s Hat”, based on a trip with her father to Liberia, West Africa, where a child soldier pointed a gun at her, led to the creation of the Pa’s Hat Foundation.
“It broke my heart,” Thomas said. “Why would a young boy be on a street corner pointing a machine gun at me? I wanted to bring attention to child soldiers and how they’re forced to do that.”
The nonprofit helps former child-soldiers and other under-served citizens in Liberia, West Africa, with education and employment opportunities.
Currently, Thomas is work- ing on another play about incarcerated people, this time with the No More Tears self- help group, where she volunteers at San Quentin State Prison.
Thomas is co-writing with No More Tears the sequel, ’Til You Know My Story 2; the stimulus for it occurred back in September of 2016, when Thomas visited a prison for the first time. She came to conduct an interview for an Amazon Audible project and was surprised by what she found.
“I thought I’d meet a bunch of people whispering, ‘Hey, I didn’t do it, get me out of here,’” Thomas said. “What I met are men who are articulate, intelligent and who take accountability for the crimes they committed.”
No More Tears, founded by Lonnie Morris, an incarcerated man who has served more than 40 years, helps men address trauma and heal. No More Tears first wrote, produced and performed the play “ ’Til You Know My Story” in 2012.
Morris and Thomas met when she came into the prison’s media center. He asked her to work with him on the sequel “ ’Til You Know My Story 2”, also to be performed at San Quentin, and Thomas agreed.
“When I left this prison, I knew immediately that I want- ed to write “ ’Til You Know My Story,” Thomas said. “I met Lonnie and was struck by how intelligent and articulate everyone was. I had no idea that these types of minds existed in people who are locked up. If I don’t know, other people don’t know.”
Thomas plans to turn inter- views with incarcerated men into monologues for “ ’Til You Know My Story 2.” “I did not know a whole lot about the criminal justice system in this country,” Thomas said. “Coming in here made me open my eyes and made me want to use all the tools I had at my disposal, which is writing and words. I have the ability to let people know.
“I believe there’s a role incarcerated people, if freed, can serve in society because there’s no one better equipped to teach the young people than them. They could actually have civic duties. I think there’s a role for them that hasn’t been tapped into and that they could actually make communities safer.”