At first, the prison rations in Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales don't sound too bad. But the prisoners can't stomach them. It's a short rotation of spaghetti, hamburger and beans, rages brutish inmate leader Butch O'Fallon (Sean Richmond).
"The food here is no good," says Queen (Gavin Robinson), who is blissfully unaware he has syphilis. "It doesn't set well. It's just spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghetti."
In Warden Whalen's (Joseph Furnari) office, prisoner Canary Jim (Zeb Hollins III) tells another inmate's visiting relative that the prison food is comparable to that of many boarding schools and offers a sample menu.
But the menu is a sham, and the food is suspect, even if three meals a day sounds like a healthy guarantee during the Great Depression, when the play is set. There's plenty of disagreement over the prison food, but that's just the beginning of the battle between the warden and the prisoners.
The inmates' struggle for humane treatment is why the rarely performed play is in the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans' season, which follows a theme about the fight for justice. Not About Nightingales runs at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center Dec. 1-16.
Whalen rules the prison with an iron fist, unafraid to have guards abuse inmates or subject them to extreme conditions. The warden keeps a watch over the population with the help of Jim, his stoolpigeon informer who is resented by Butch and other inmates.
Jim has been in prison since he was 16, and he's gained an education behind bars, enabling him to write articles for the prison newspaper and serve as a bookkeeper for Whalen. Eva Crane (Nicole Himel) is hired as a secretary and learns some secrets about the prison and Whalen from Jim, including why the prisoners are served so much spaghetti. Unsurprisingly, she attracts the attention of a couple of men at the prison.
Williams wrote Not About Nightingales when he was in college and still went by his actual name, Thomas. During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) supported writers through the Federal Theatre Project, which sponsored Living Newspaper works, a type of play dramatizing current events, says director Augustin Correro. Williams based the play on articles he read about a prison that abused its prisoners. The inmates went on a hunger strike to demand reform.
The play was not produced until 1998, after actress Vanessa Redgrave led an effort to locate it among Williams' archived papers. Correro has moved scenes, but the dialogue is the original text. The original play didn't locate the prison, but this production subtly refers to the location as being in Louisiana.
The prisoners are a diverse lot. Butch is strong but calculating. Swifty (Christopher Robinson, who starred in the company's recent production of Camino Real) has just been incarcerated and is in denial about how long he'll be behind bars. Sailor Jack (Adler Hyatt) is young and crumbling under the harshness of his conditions. Joe (Todras Sam) is reserved and bides his time. Queen is flighty and oblivious. Jim comes up for parole in one month, which gives him the most to gain and most to lose.