By Alain Foix
Translated by Amelia Parenteau
Volume 6, Issue 1 (Spring 2016)
I first connected with Alain when I was living in Paris in the winter of 2014, working at my old study abroad program, and I leapt at the chance to translate his play. Not only did it celebrate a beloved American revolutionary, Martin Luther King, Jr., but it also revealed an aspect of King’s history that was unfamiliar to me and, I suspect, to many others. I was at the tail end of my time in Paris when I was offered the translation job, and it felt like a natural bridge between my two beloved countries, as well as a perfect linguistic transition, as I rewired my brain back to English.
The Last Scene (La dernière scène) was created in July 2012 at the Théâtre de l’Albatros in Avignon, France. In its English version, it had its first workshop readings during the Fence Conference in New London, Connecticut and New York, New York at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and The Lark, respectively, in January 2015. There, I had the opportunity to refine my translation, working side-by-side with Alain and another Fence member, Neil Fleming.
This play tells the story of the relationship between Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, an activist and journalist who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 after the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Mumia spent 30 years on death row, and is currently sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Although Mumia was most directly involved with the Black Panthers, and more publicly idolized Malcolm X, this play dramatizes his admiration for MLK, and the ways in which he felt like he was carrying out Martin’s legacy through his own activism.
The story weaves between Coretta’s remembrances of moments with Martin, Mumia’s memories from his childhood and young adult life in Philadelphia, and their encounters when Coretta comes to pay him visits in prison. They discuss love and freedom and activism and family, which Mumia was sorely missing during his imprisonment. Martin is evoked from time to time, through voiceover, lending a ghostly and godly presence to the story.
The focus is not on any grand dramatic action, but rather on the storytelling, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, to persist, to keep up the fight. Mumia was known as the “voice of the voiceless” as a radio journalist, and his character embodies that identity in this play, shedding light on his experience in prison. Coretta serves to coax his stories out of him, and to contribute her own memories of time spent with Martin, connecting the legacies of the two activists, one living, one dead, she the only free agent between the two, suffering in her own prison of memories.
Music plays an important role in this production, bridging the free world and the world inside prison, and providing vital doses of hope to an otherwise bleak reality. Although the script does not come with a musical score, the choruses’ swelling emotion is evident in its poetry.
It was refreshing to learn about my nation’s history through a foreign perspective, and I was impressed by the way this American story takes on such a distinctly French voice, through Alain’s writing. The Last Scene offers an almost dreamy depiction of violent realities, and a fascinating window into our past, through a lens of French interpretation.
Alain Foix is a writer, playwright, and director. His work spans from novels to essays, including biography, children’s books and pieces of theater. He primarily publishes with Gallimard et Galaade. His latest works, published by Gallimard, are biographies of Martin Luther King and Che Guevara. A doctor and professor of philosophy by training, he moved towards theaters and cultural organizations such as the National Theater of Guadeloupe, the Prism Theater of Saint-Quentin in Yvelines, near Paris, and The Muse, National Center of Musical Creation for contemporary and electroacoustic music. He finally created his own company, Quai des arts, where he is the artistic director and directs all productions.
Amelia Parenteau is a playwright, journalist, translator, and cultural commentator currently living in Brooklyn and working at the French Institute Alliance Française. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College where she studied writing, theater, and French. She has worked with TCG, Ping Chong & Company, The Lark, and The Civilians in New York, and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. She is a member of the FENCE and the League of Professional Theatre Women, and she has been published in Asymptote Literary Magazine and American Theatre Magazine, as well as Culturebot, NITE News, Extended Play, and the TCG Circle.
The Last Scene
LIGHTS RISE GRADUALLY
Györgi Ligeti’s “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra.” Little by little, a face appears behind a window pane. It is Mumia Abu-Jamal. The face shows a series of expressions. Time passes, an infinite amount of time. Little by little, shadows close over the face.
MUSIC CONTINUES UNTIL THE BEGINNING OF THE NEXT SCENE
LIGHTS RISE GRADUALLY
Mumia Abu-Jamal behind the window pane.
In the foreground, Coretta Scott King.
Coretta: Martin, do you remember the Indian Ocean and the sun setting over Cape Comorin? It was us, the horizon, that vertigo too.
Mumia: This is Mumia Abu-Jamal, coming to you live from death row.
Coretta: There we held above the void, with me entirely in your arms. There we were, on that enormous rock, there where the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Bengal embrace and mix their waters.
Mumia: I’m here to tell you about America’s Martin and Martin’s America.
Coretta: Do you remember? The ocean sang with the wind and the rhythm of the waves. A song so somber and profound, so profound. And I sang your favorite gospel, Precious Lord, Take My Hand. Do you remember?
Mumia: Today, we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, the only federal holiday dedicated to a black man.
Coretta: Precious Lord, Take My Hand.
Mumia: But who really was Martin Luther King? Now would be a good time to find out.
Coretta: We were looking at the blood orange sun as it sank into the dark waters, swallowed up by the black night. You were captivated. And your black eyes, full of shadows, filled with death. Your fear of death, but your desire too. You were speaking with God, Martin. You were far from me. How can I put it? I was jealous of God.
Mumia: Martin brought hope. To us, to the nation. But today he’s no more than an idol who hides the truth. If we lose his memory, we plunge into darkness.
Coretta: I looked away and saw the rising moon on the other side. It arose from the ocean just as the sun was sinking into it. I woke you from your daydream to show you this beauty, to drag you from that other drowning night. Do you remember, Martin? You remember that?
Mumia: We need memory to bring back hope. King was not that sugar-coated icon that we try to make of him. There’s nothing he can do about it, he’s gone. But we can, out of the depths of our nightmare, in the dark of the night, we can. We’re still alive.
Coretta: Martin, today is your day. We’ve forced it out of them. Eighteen years of work. Eighteen relentless years. Now it’s done. You have your holiday.
Mumia: At the end of his life, Martin Luther King devoted himself to the poor. His death left them even more profoundly distressed.
Coretta: When the sun sets over the horizon, there is always a moon that rises somewhere.
Mumia: Like Dr. King, most black civil rights leaders come from educated and cultivated backgrounds. They seek power at the highest levels of the State and business. Levels inaccessible for millions of poor black people. Poor black people, they have it the worst of all. The worst public education, the worst housing, the worst relationship with the police, the highest rates of unemployment, of imprisonment. The worst, the worst of everything… Everything has been taken from them and what have they gotten in return? Martin Luther King Day. An image, a false image. We forget that he sacrificed his life for garbage collectors on strike, for workers demanding a decent wage, above all for dignity. Happy Martin Luther King Day! Coming to you from death row, I’ve been Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Coretta: (singing a gospel) Do you remember, Martin? You remember that?
Martin’s Voice: I remember, Corie, my Coretta, I remember it all so well. I remember that sun as it went to its death, that anguish of dusk, that foreshadowed death, and the shadows invading my spirit. I was drowned in that night, and you showed me hope. Just when despair descends, there is always a light rising somewhere.
Coretta: But you’re gone, Martin. You left me alone on this rock with the void and the vertigo.
Mumia: You’re gone, Martin. You split. You let us down.
Coretta: You left me. You abandoned me. You left all neat and clean, well dressed, all put together in your suit and hat and coat, like you were going to a party.
Mumia: You ate everything up. You made us dream. You set the table, a beautiful table, full of promises, and we were starving. But you and your apostles, you gobbled it all up.
Coretta: You went with your dream and left me alone with the night. And these children too, all these children for whom you’re nothing now, who are orphans, with nothing but guns in their hands.
Mumia: You fucked off, you left us alone and empty-handed. Nothing to hope for. Nothing but violence, but the beatings, the clubs, and the dogs’ teeth, and nothing but hate in the eyes of the pigs.
Coretta: They cried for you, they protested, and they got beat up. Then they took out their guns. Now they’re packed into death row by the hundreds.
Mumia: And you spoke of love?
Coretta: Martin? Do you hear me, Martin?
Mumia: And you spoke of love?
Mumia: Welcome to Pennsylvania’s death row. Welcome to my six by ten foot cell. Welcome to the hive of shadows where everyday seventy-eight bumblebees stuck in their cells sip the venom and hatred of the State. Welcome to a world where the sun can only shine two hours a day through the bars. I can’t believe it. Condemned to death! They condemned me to death. Maybe I’m naive, or totally stupid, but I thought my sentence would be overturned. I really believed it. I believed my appeals would succeed. I had confidence in the justice of my country. I was a Black Panther, but I was a journalist. It’s not justice, it’s politics. A Supreme Court judge once said, “Blacks have no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” He really said that. Don’t wait for the media to tell you the truth. They’re in bed with the State. I’ll tell you the truth. Even if I have to speak to you from the valley of the shadow of death, I’ll tell it. This is Mumia Abu-Jamal, still live from death row.
Coretta enters singing and heads towards the piano. She brings flowers that she arranges in a vase. Mumia appears naked, upstage. We hear a voice offstage that says:
GUARD’S VOICE OFFSTAGE: Open your mouth. Stick out your tongue. Are you wearing dentures? Let me see both sides of your hands. Pull back your foreskin. Lift up your balls. Turn around. Bend over. Spread your cheeks. The bottoms of your feet. Get dressed. Mumia grabs the bundle of clothing at his feet. He gets dressed and we see that he is wearing a Protestant pastor’s habit with a soft hat. Martin Luther King exits and heads towards Coretta, who is playing a tune on the piano.
Coretta: You said, “You can’t play the piano without admitting that the black keys sound just as good and are just as necessary as the white ones.”
Martin: I said that?
Coretta: Yes, sir, you said that.
Martin: I don’t know how to play piano.
Coretta: Don’t play dumb. Play, play for me like before.
Martin: You know, blind people don’t see color. Maybe that’s why they play so well (he closes his eyes). So this, this is a white one, is that right?
Coretta: That’s right.
Martin: And this is a black?
Coretta: Yes, that’s right, go ahead and play, Ray Charles.
Martin: Do you know what Ray Charles said to a journalist who asked him if deep down, in spite of his international success, he wasn’t secretly unhappy to be blind?
Coretta: No, tell me.
Martin: “Well, it could have been worse, you know. I could have been black.”
Coretta: (laughing) Come on, play.
Martin plays “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” to accompany Coretta who sings. Coretta continues to sing a cappella while watching Martin move away. She takes the bouquet of flowers.
Coretta is seated facing Mumia, on the other side of the windowpane, holding the bouquet.
Mumia: They’re pretty. Are you allowed to have them in here?
Coretta: They gave me permission.
Mumia: But I can’t take them.
Coretta: I know, it’s just for you to see them.
Mumia: I would love to smell them. What do they smell like?
Mumia: Girls born of sunlight and water. They were dancing in the wind… The sun… I need the sun. Our skin needs the sun and the whites have thrown us into darkness.
Coretta: Our skin is the color of prison.
Mumia: That’s it, Mama. They want to whiten us up like chicory in a root cellar. Don’t you think so, Mama?
Coretta: Don’t call me Mama.
Coretta: Don’t call me Mama. I’m not your mother.
Mumia: But Martin is my father. So you’re my mother.
Coretta: He wouldn’t have wanted to have a son like you.
Mumia: Because I’m shattering his dreams?
Coretta: You’re more the son of Malcolm X.
Mumia: Okay, sure. I was born under X. We’re all born under X. Orphans of this nation. We’re all labeled X. They shut us up in ghettos because they don’t want to see themselves in our eyes. Malcolm’s glasses were X-rays. They stripped them all naked. So they killed him and shut us in ghettos, in jails, to keep themselves safe from the X-rays. They didn’t want to see themselves. They didn’t want us to look them in the eye. They didn’t want to be seen naked. Yes, I am a son of Malcolm. But of Martin, too. I am not the son of his dreams, no, I know that. His unrealized dreams. Children are never what you want them to be. A child is not a dream. I may be his deviant son, his failed son, but I am his son all the same.
Coretta: Mumia, I am sure that he would love you as a son. And he would love Malcolm, too.
Mumia: Yes, as a gangster son. Malcolm loved and respected him, too.
Coretta: I know, Malcolm told me.
Mumia: Just like me, I love him and respect him. I respect his memory.
Coretta: You can call me Mama.
Mumia: You know, sometimes, I feel like a motherless child.
Coretta and Mumia: (singing together) Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.
FADE TO BLACK
Mumia alone in the visiting room.
Mumia: This child, a ray of sunlight in my shadows. She was so little, with her little mouse voice, just like Minnie. She was only a baby when I was thrown into hell. I’ve never seen her since: she’s too young to bring here. Her eyes lit up the darkness of this visiting room! They shone with happiness. She came straight towards me, but like a fly, she bumped into the glass. Stunned. She understood, and her tears poured down. The State separated us with a window. She clenched her hands into fists and she hit at the glass, she hit and hit. “Break it, break it,” she cried. Her mother was at her side, she was petrified. But she took Hamida in her arms. She’s called Hamida. They cried and my eyes leaked and my nose stuffed up. “Why can’t I hug him? Why can’t I kiss him? Why can’t I sit on his lap? Why can’t we touch each other? Why, why, why?” I turned away. I didn’t want her to see her father cry. I caught my breath, dried my tears and turned back around. Then I told her with a grimace, “My daughter, how can you breathe with a nose full of snot?” And so, little by little, like the sun coming out from behind a big cloud, I saw her tiny smile break onto her face. It grew and grew. I reminded her how when she was little, she always used to squeeze the cat in her arms until it was choking, and her denial turned into laughter. And all three of us, we started telling all sorts of silly stories. In just a few minutes, visiting time was up. She recited the poem we would always say on the phone, “I love you, I miss you, and when I see you, I’m gonna kiss you.” We laughed, they left. It’s been five years already, since that visit, but it’s as if it were yesterday. Her little fists banging there, her child’s rage against that glass, her tears, her rage, her rage! (He strikes the glass.)
We hear Coretta singing.
Coretta: (singing a Harry Belafonte song)
And the song I sing,
I sing for you, sweet Martin Luther King,
And the song I sing,
I sing for you, sweet Martin Luther King.
Martin appears upstage and heads towards the window pane in the foreground. He lights a cigarette.
Coretta: You were happy that day behind the bay window. You looked free. You were going to die, you knew it, you foretold it. It was a beautiful spring day and the birds were singing. The smell of magnolias was everywhere to cover the stench of Memphis. It was the garbage collectors’ strike. You were so happy, Martin, those beautiful Easter days, surrounded by your friends. You played with them like a child in the Lorraine Motel courtyard, playing chicken with Ralph Abernathy, trying to topple Jessie Jackson, riding on the back of Reverend Kyles. It was a Tournament of Reverends, playing like children, and whirling like birds. I wish I could have seen that. And then you went back to Room 306 and you laughed, and you laughed, and you called your mother. Why did you call her, Martin? You never called her when you were on tour. And then you gave her your love for the last time. You knew it was the last time. The sound of a saxophone floated into your room with the scent of magnolias. Ben was playing in the square. He was waiting for you to go to a night meeting. And so you walked by the bay window, you went out on the balcony, and you leaned over to talk to him.
Martin: (leaning over the balcony) Hey Ben, don’t forget to play Precious Lord Take My Hand tonight, and really play it well.
Coretta squatting near him, caresses him and takes out a piece of chalk to outline his shape.
Coretta: Why, Martin? Why did you walk past the bay window? The real world is not a dream. Death is behind the window pane, Martin. Death is behind the window pane. You always said that it could come anytime, anyplace. The sound of a tail pipe made you jump. Kyles thought he heard a car backfiring. It was a mild evening, the night was falling, and the birds were singing, do you remember?
Martin gets up and leaves while Coretta stays near his outline drawn with chalk on the black floor, and she sings:
And the song I sing,
I sing for you, sweet Martin Luther King,
And the song I sing,
I sing for you, sweet Martin Luther King.
Györgi Ligeti’s “Lontano.” Mumia behind the window pane as if behind a windshield.
LIGHTS RISE GRADUALLY
Mumia: 4 o’clock in the morning, Philadelphia. I’m sick of being a taxi driver. That’s five dollars. Good night, sir. Shit, a gunshot. A cop is beating a black man to the ground. Fuck! That’s my brother. What did the pigs do to him? It’s okay, he’s getting up. No more. I don’t see any more. No, I see another black man lying on the sidewalk. Fuck, it’s me! It’s really me! What am I doing there? A cop is slapping my face. I don’t feel anything. Three others are coming. They’re beating me up, they’re punching me. They’re handcuffing me and pushing my head against a streetlight. The steel is hard, the steel is cold. My body’s bleeding on the pavement. I hear my daughter speaking to me.
– Daddy?/ Yes my darling?/ Why are they beating you like that?/ It’s okay, my darling, it’s okay, I’m fine./ But Daddy, why did they shoot you?/ It’s an old dream of theirs that they’ve had for a long time, don’t worry. Daddy is fine. You see? I don’t feel anything.
My father is speaking to me now. Oh, Dad, what are you doing there? You’ve been dead for twenty years./ How are you, my boy?/ Yeah, I’m fine, Dad./ I love you, son./ I love you too, Dad, but you’ve already been dead for twenty years.
Blood in my mouth. The siren wails, the car drives off. Trouble breathing. Dad, Dad, you’re still handsome. Twenty years you’ve been dead. They drag me to the station to finish me off, that’s what I think. No, they’re sentencing me to death because I killed Faulkner. Faulkner? I killed Faulkner? Oh no! The Wild Palms, The Sound and the Fury? I killed a genius?/ Idiot, not the writer, Daniel Faulkner, a cop, that’s worse./ I killed a cop? How did I kill a cop? They wanted to murder me! Their bullet pierced my lung. I’m spitting blood./ Your gun, you had it in your hand, you shot him./ My gun? But it never leaves my glovebox./ You killed him, you’re fucked, Mumia. Farewell to the Black Panthers, you’re going to burn in hell./ I’m not a Black Panther anymore, I gave it up. I don’t screw around anymore. I’m a journalist and a taxi driver./ Go burn in hell, nigger.
Fuck! This is not some stupid crime show for couch potatoes. It’s me who is behind the screen. Fucking screen. And it hurts, it’s hell. Thirty years already. Change the channel. Switch it, change me.
And this fucking TV that feeds us bullshit all day long. We have no fucking choice but to swallow it. And we hold back time, drop by drop, second by second. Because down there, at the end of the hallway, there’s another screen, beyond the one in the visiting room, there’s a third channel, the rotisserie. So we cling to the fucking TV, we gorge ourselves on it. The world is there, life is there, behind the screen. Of course we can dream about it, but we can’t touch it. Hell is a pane of glass with people on the other side. They soften up our brains in front of the TV screen and then they cook them. Brains prepped for the electric chair. But if you want to think, or if you want to write… I want a typewriter. I want a typewriter. I asked for one a hundred times:
We see him in his cell.
Mumia: Hey boss, I want a typewriter.
VOICE OFFSTAGE: No metal allowed, too dangerous.
Mumia: But I want a plastic one, battery-operated.
Voice Offstage: No machines allowed, that’s the rule. For security measures.
Mumia: And a foot-long piece of glass, that’s not a security problem?
Voice Offstage: Where did you find that?
Mumia: You know, on my TV set.
Coretta seated outside the visiting room, but she is speaking to Martin Luther King.
Coretta: He’s a child, Martin, a child. He’s been behind bars for a quarter century. But he’s a child. They lock children up and then they kill them. Do you remember ‘68? Yes, that spring, my love. He celebrated his fourteenth birthday twenty days after your death. He protested against Wallace in the middle of a stadium of white people. Crazy! They beat him up, they stomped on him. On the ground, he saw the pant leg of a police man, and he called to him for help. But the cop’s boot on his face shut him up. And so the next day, he joined the Black Panthers. Yes, I know, the Black Panthers… But you’re not here any more, what else could he do? You left us. How do I explain it to them? They did all they could to amp those kids up, and you know young people with their rabid will to live. Black or white, they’re all the same. If you want to kill your dog, you say it has rabies. They made them rabid and then they killed them. And these days, you know, even the kids, even the crazy people and the mentally retarded are condemned to death. Mumia is you, Martin. Mumia is like your son. He calls me Mama, did you know that? And he is calling to you for help. He needs to get out of this, Martin, he needs to get out of this. Martin? Martin? Do you hear me? Martin?
Coretta, a package in hand, in front of the glass, Mumia behind it.
Mumia: What’s that?
Coretta: I made them myself.
Mumia: Can I eat them?
Coretta: Of course, I got permission.
Mumia: I’d like to smell them. Oh, that’s so satisfying. You know there are no smells here. Just piss, shit, cum, sweat, and death.
Coretta: We’re going to get you out of here.
Mumia: You think so?
Coretta: They won’t kill you. Desmond Tutu is with you.
Mumia: Desmond Tutu?
Coretta: Tutu and Mandela, Derrida too, writers’ organizations, philosophers, journalists, politicians, intellectuals and Hollywood, all over the world, whole towns. In France, they made you an honorary citizen in Paris and Bobigny.
Mumia: Citizen? I like the sound of that. I can imagine how it smells, but I can’t taste it. It’s like the cookies behind the glass.
Coretta: You’ll taste it soon. Why did you walk past the window, Mumia?
Coretta: Why did you walk by the window?
Mumia: What are you talking about?
Coretta: The police officer? You killed him?
Coretta: You didn’t kill him?
Mumia: No, I told you I didn’t.
Coretta: I believe you. Besides, that’s not the issue.
Mumia: Not the issue? I’ve been shut up for centuries, condemned to death, and you’re telling me that’s not the issue.
Coretta: You had a gun.
Mumia: It was in my glovebox. The cops killed Faulkner because he wanted to denounce them, he wasn’t corrupt like them. And so they gunned him down and pinned it on me.
Coretta: But you had a gun, Mumia.
Mumia: Yeah, so?
Coretta: Do you remember what Malcolm said when Kennedy died?
Mumia: What are you doing, Coretta, what are you doing? That’s enough. Guard!
Coretta: Mumia, wait, I just want to help you. Answer my question. What did Malcolm say?
Mumia: What did Malcolm say? Who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.
Coretta: That’s right.
Mumia: What are you saying? That it’s my fault?
Coretta: I didn’t say that.
Mumia: Yes, you did.
Coretta: No, I’m saying that violence doesn’t solve anything.
Mumia: Oh yes, that’s right. Love. The great philosopher King. The king of black philosophers extolling the love of his enemy. Turn the other cheek. And did you see? Bang! What is a heart against a bullet? They only understand gunshots.
Coretta: Ten against one, Mumia. We were one against ten.
Mumia: But that’s war.
Coretta: Mumia, you’re an American.
Mumia: American? I’m a citizen of the world.
Coretta: American first.
Mumia: Okay, but so what?
Coretta: So what? It’s not a war, well, not a race war, when it’s one against ten.
Mumia: There’s many more of us than that. It’s not our color, it’s our cause.
Coretta: Yes, the cause of the poor. Martin understood that, and that’s why they killed him. You said that yourself on the radio.
Mumia: Poverty has a color. The color black.
Coretta: And poor whites, what do you do with them?
Mumia: They’re thrown into the blackness and they try to climb out like birds in oil. To do that, they hold out their hands to the rich. They’re not black, they’re blackened. They’re in with the white guards here.
Coretta: You’re talking about shadows.
Mumia: Yes, shadows, they tell the truth. One against ten in the light, but three against five in the shadows. Shadows tell the truth. The light lies. All right, it’s time. I’m going back to my darkness. Guard!
Coretta: Are you mad at me?
Mumia: No, not at all, Mama.
Coretta: Then take my cookies.
Mumia: What color are they?
Coretta: They’re nice and dark, but not burnt.
Mumia’s cell. He eats Coretta’s cookies.
Mumia: Mmm… King, Queen of the Cookies. Thank you, Corie, Queen of the Cookies. I could totally sip on a Four Loko right now. What? You didn’t know? It’s good, it’s loco, good and loco, your mother, my brother. Loco, it’s loco, loco motha fucka. Fuck your mother. Wine, red wine, grapefruit and lemon for the dog. It’s fresh, it stings. It’s good when it’s hot, with sun on the skin. Sun. On the skin. Mmm… She was so beautiful, that Californian girl, with her nice black skin, nice and smooth, nice and shiny, and her big laughing eyes. There was a jukebox and she put on James Brown. Say it loud.
We hear James Brown sing “Say It Loud” and Mumia dances with his chains. A strange and awkward dance, full of fury. He speaks while he’s dancing.
Mumia: It’s not me who’s dancing, it’s the loco motha fucka. I’m drunk, I’m drunk. Don’t know how to dance, never learned. Swear to God, a black who doesn’t know how to dance. That’s me. Hey! Look at that guy. He’s black, and he doesn’t even know how to dance. What is that, fuck! We’ve seen everything. A Black Panther and everything. So panthers can’t dance no more? It’s a pink panther. No wait, a drink panther. Look at him, he’s drunk. What the hell kind of dance is that? It looks like a Saint Bernard in cowboy boots doing the Madison, some kind of hippopotamus on point dancing Swan Lake. And the Californian girl just laughs and laughs. I’m irresistible. Yes, irresistible. It’s Saturday Night Fever. I am black, I am proud. I say it again and I say it loud: I am black and I am proud.
LOWER THE MUSIC, WHICH CONTINUES QUIETLY
Fuck! Across the street, there’s some white guys breaking down the door to our office. I head over there. They’re pointing their guns at me, the fuckers! The barrel’s so close I can smell the grease. “This isn’t a joke, nigger! If you blink an eye, I’m going to blow your fucking brains out.” I’m black, but right there, I’m not proud. I’m standing there helpless, looking at all our files in the gutter, our papers flying in the wind like white butterflies. And these Ku Klux Klan sons of bitches giggling like piglets. Fuck! Fucking motha fucka.
MUSIC SURGES AGAIN
Coretta is alone, speaking to the outline of Martin on the floor, while we see Mumia pacing.
Coretta: He reads all the time and he speaks well. His heart is full of love, but there’s anger there, too. He’s like Malcolm X, like the young Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, Black Power, like Huey P. Newton, Eldrige Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, George Jackson, and Angela Davis; he’s furious. Like everyone, he has a hard time with your nonviolence and your love. How do I explain it to him? You’re not here anymore. They filled the prisons, they locked them in with their own violence, with their color, and their identity is made of hate, rage, and destruction. We closed them up in darkness. We marry them to despair. They can’t see a moon coming up, not anywhere in the sky. Martin, how do I explain it to you? I understand them, you know. Your words aren’t here anymore, hope is all washed up. I defended your teachings and we argued. I brought him cookies and we argued. Yes, those cookies you liked so much. You know, I should have brought them to your grave the other day. Martin, help me. You left us in the middle of the flood. Why did you walk past the glass door? Why did you lean out over the balcony? Why did you put their violence in the right? I ask myself that question every day. What is love good for? For killing loving people? Love is a loser? Love has to lose to win? Sometimes I have doubts, Martin, I have doubts about this thing called love. And what if these young people are right, out of the depths of their prisons?
MARTIN’S VOICE: I lived all that, in prison. That despair, the taste of blackness. They call them rehabilitation centers, but they’re really just there to degrade us. They want to make us into beasts and coop us up in pens of hatred. It’s not even worthwhile putting us in jail. Ghettos pump out chains of hatred. They build them like cruel children who play with little animals and stick them in little boxes. They observe them killing each other, then they murder the winner or throw him in jail. Our ghettos are their circuses. Like Spartacus, we have to refuse to fight.
Coretta: But how, Martin. How? Martin? Martin? You hear me.
Mumia: (on the radio) It’s easy for us, the living, to raise up the icon of Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s much harder to take on the work that he would have to do today. How would he have viewed President Clinton’s cynical support of the death penalty? What would he have said about the two million people in prison? How would he have spoken to the homeless in the richest nation in the world? What would have been his response to the injustice in these so-called palaces of justice? I would bet that if he were still alive, the good Reverend King would have passionately protested against these injustices and all the others. As we should all do. This is Mumia Abu-Jamal, still coming to you live from death row.
Coretta: He’s moving towards you, Martin. You’re a lighthouse in his night, and he knows it. But love, your love, to love your enemy, that’s difficult, you know.
VOICE OF MARTIN: But that’s the problem, and the only solution. There’s no other horizon.
Coretta: No other horizon? What horizon is there in a prison? What horizon is there in a prison?
Mumia in his cell. We see an image appear on the wall.
VOICE OFFSTAGE: Mumia, Mumia… Mumia… Mumia, you know what?
LIGHTS RISE QUICKLY & GRADUALLY
Voice Offstage: You know, Woolfolk?
Mumia: What about Woolfolk? What did he do now, that shithead?
Voice Offstage: He’s dead.
Voice Offstage: He hung himself last night.
Mumia: Don’t bullshit me, man.
Voice Offstage: It’s not a joke, he’s dead. They took him away.
Guard’s Voice Offstage: Death row prisoners! Fourth, fifth, and sixth floor, we’re going to the yard.
Voice Offstage: Fuck, Mumia, I’ve been in this place way too long.
Mumia: Why do you say that, Running Bear?
Voice Offstage: Because, fucker, I just caught myself talking like a nigger.
Mumia: Well of course you talk like a nigga, Running Bear.
Voice Offstage: And you think that’s normal? An Indian talking like a nigger?
Mumia: You’re in jail, Running Bear.
Voice: Oh, fuck! I’ve gotta get out of here.
Coretta enters, walking quickly. Mumia watches her go by, then takes off his prison jumpsuit and becomes Martin in a suit and tie, who catches up with her.
Coretta: And we marched, and we marched, and we marched. Montgomery, Selma, Albany, Birmingham. And our feet kept time, and we sang, and we sang, we clapped our hands, clapped, and split the clouds. The sky opened up. Remember that, Martin? We shall overcome (she sings). And Kennedy sang, and then Johnson sang we shall overcome. And we sang in the prisons, we made the bars tremble, we jumped their barriers, and their dogs barked, and the caravan went by. Nothing could stop us, nothing could shut us in. And the children sang, and the mamas sang, they sang for their children. They told us, “We’re marching for our children.” And their children, they marched, they marched towards the prisons. And the prisons swelled, and the ghettos filled up.
And poverty hungrier than ever, and poverty blacker than ever, and blacker still. And the prisons are even blacker than that, and then comes death, Martin, and death is the blackest of all. Martin, Martin?
THUNDERCLAP, SOUND OF CLOUDBURST
GUARD’S VOICE OFFSTAGE: Back inside.
Mumia: Back inside? But we just got here.
Voice Offstage: Back inside. We can’t leave you out in the storm.
Mumia: Oh, really? Scared we might get fried?
Voice Offstage: Get back inside!
Mumia: I understand, of course. If we get fried out here, you’re out of a job.
Mumia whispers in his cell, with images still being projected on the wall.
VOICE OFFSTAGE: Mumia, Mumia.
Mumia: Yes, Running Bear.
Voice Offstage: Do you remember Horace the Retard?
Mumia: We say, “differently abled,” Running Bear. Dear old Horace, did they finally let him go?
Voice Offstage: Yes!
Mumia: Oh! That’s great, great! I’m so happy. Oh! Yes, very happy. You know, I thought you were going to tell me more bad news. I don’t want anything to do with bad news, not even in here. Nothing at all.
Voice Offstage: He left, he joined his people.
Mumia: His people? He didn’t have any relatives.
Voice Offstage: They sent him to the chair. He suffered a lot, but he’s gone. He was brave. He bit his tongue so he wouldn’t scream. His body pitched forward. White smoke came out of his head, like it was his soul escaping. He turned blue. Blue, like a fucking smurf. After two minutes, the current shut off. It smelled like a roast turkey. But it’s not Thanksgiving. The doctor came up and shook his head. Dumb old Horace just didn’t want to go. So they gave him another blast. Stubborn bastard! Took another seven minutes for him to go. He’s happy now, Mumia. Do you hear me, Mumia?
Mumia: Yes, Running Bear, I hear you.
Voice Offstage: Before they had prisons, they had the prairies. No borders. And my ancestors and their mustangs were as free as the air. They’re up there now, them and their prairies. Horace is with them.
Mumia: Yes, Running Bear. He’s happy up there, with your great ancestors.
Voice Offstage: You know what, Mumia, I’m going to get out of here. See you soon.
Mumia: Okay, Running Bear. See you soon… Running Bear? Running Bear? Running Bear?
Coretta in the visiting room with Mumia.
Mumia: So, what did he tell you?
Coretta: Martin? But…
Mumia: I know you talk to him. What did he tell you?
Coretta: Love is the only key.
Mumia: Love doesn’t unlock prisons.
Coretta: Love is the master key.
Mumia: Coretta, I’m not a Christian.
Coretta: Christians don’t have a monopoly on the heart, Mumia.
Mumia: I believe in reason.
Coretta: Reason has a heart, Mumia. You have a heart, you are the voice of the voiceless.
Mumia: Yes, I have a heart, it fights unhappiness. Blacks first. They’re the first that they throw in jail, the first they fry in the electric chair. Love, you speak to me of love. King spoke about love, that hasn’t changed. We’ve been talking about love for decades. And the whole time they’re out there murdering, while everyone else is chugging down TV and chicken nuggets.
Coretta: There are no other solutions.
Mumia: No other solutions? What did Malcolm X say when he spoke to you in Selma before hedied? What did he tell you?
Coretta: Why are you asking me that?
Mumia: Everyone knows what he told you and that you told your husband. He told it to you so the whole world would hear it. You don’t remember? All right, I’ll remind you. He said, “I want people to know that if they don’t listen to the voice of Martin Luther King, they’re going to have to listen to our guns.”
Coretta: We got that, Mumia, we really got that. Kennedy too, that’s why…
Mumia: Yes, Kennedy, he got that. And do you remember what he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Coretta: That’s it, that’s it exactly.
Mumia: And what did he do with that? He sent men to the moon.
Coretta: It’s a light that rises at night.
Mumia: But we’re walking on the ground, we’re wading in the shadows. For every man on the moon, there’s a million in the dark.
Coretta: Martin thought that, too. But this light brings hope too.
Mumia: Enough of poetry, enough philosophy, enough! While we’re philosophizing, they’re building prisons and death machines and burying us alive. There have never been as many blacks thrown in jail and sentenced to death as since your husband died. And you speak to me of love.
Coretta: Of love, yes, that love you have deep down inside, that you’ve kept alive since they threw you into the mouth of death. Death can’t swallow you, Mumia. Do you know why? Because even if you speak to us from the shadows, you send out light, reasons to hope when you speak, when you write, as long as you’re alive, you tell us that you love. And do you believe that out there in the light, it’s only black people who hear your voice? That it’s only black people who feel loved by you?
Mumia: There’s no answer to that.
Coretta: You’re not just a prisoner, sentenced to death, you are our freedom. As long as you stay on death row, as long as you are not freed, it’s we who are prisoners. You see, the heart has its reasons. Love is freedom. Freedom to think, to speak, to move freely, and to love.
Mumia: I want that kind of love.
Coretta: So we agree.
Mumia: But that doesn’t change anything. Love is not enough.
Coretta: You see the shadow growing around you. It hides the light from you. If things are getting darker here, that means the world is changing.
Mumia: Oh yeah, it’s the Middle Ages here, time doesn’t move. This shadow hasn’t moved for centuries. But from within this night, I see the world and the seasons changing, people that I loved dying without the chance to hold them, to tell them how much they meant to me. I see my children growing up, I even see them getting old, while I’ve been stuck here since I was twentysix. Every second that passes singes me and subjects me to an endless, endless torture.
Coretta: Mumia, Mumia, you know Martin didn’t die for nothing. Love won some ground.
Mumia: Where did that happen? I haven’t seen it.
Coretta: You can’t see it, but it’s changing, it’s changing. You know, he’s going to be elected, I’m sure of it.
Coretta: You know who, the President.
Mumia: A black president? You believe it, you really believe it?
Coretta: Martin predicted it forty years ago.
Mumia: He predicted it? In the name of what?
Coretta: The name of reason and love.
Mumia: And if he were elected, what would that change for me, for us and for the blacks? Would he get me out of here? Would he get us out of here?
Coretta: It’s not up to him, Mumia. There have been Nixon, Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Kennedy, Johnson, and all the others. I knew them well. Some of them really wanted to get us out of here. But you know, presidents in this country… You know their power… No, he isn’t going to get you out of here, but what elects him will.
Mumia: What will elect him?
Coretta: Heart and reason.
Mumia: He isn’t even against the death penalty.
Coretta: Do you think you can get elected in this country if you’re against the death penalty?
Mumia: Heart and reason, right?
IN THE DARKNESS we hear Mumia speaking to Coretta.
Mumia: Coretta, sing me a song.
Coretta: Which song, Mumia?
Mumia: It doesn’t matter, one that he would have liked. Sing it to me as if it were for him.
Coretta: Okay, I’ll sing this one. (She sings)
Coretta sings again in front of Mumia, who is sitting behind the glass.
Mumia: He liked that one?
Coretta: He loved it.
Mumia: It is pretty. We should sing more in prison. It would make things more bearable.
Coretta: Singing breaks down bars, you know.
Mumia: So don’t stop, don’t stop singing.
Coretta: Martin said that music is our weapon. The nonviolent weapon. It gets under your skin, it saps your defenses, and it wins.
Mumia: Coretta, I want to get out of here, I want to sing outside.
Coretta: We’re going to get you out of here. Give me your hand.
She puts her hands against the glass, Mumia does the same. Their hands leave white marks. They play with them, multiply them, while Coretta sings.
Coretta: You know, Mumia. You’re brave. You’re like a lion in a cage and you’re roaring. Don’t stop roaring, it’s your song. You have a beautiful mane. I know they want to take it away from you. But your voice, they can’t take that away from you.
Mumia: They’ve wanted to cut my so-called mane for thirty years.
Coretta: You know, in order for young Maasai warriors to become adults, they have to pull on the tail of a lion. It’s their rite of passage. You’re a handsome Maasai warrior.
Mumia: But that passage is long, much too long, Mama. Thirty years, Mama, thirty years.
Coretta: But you’re alive, still alive. You know, Martin was your age when he started the fight, and your age when they stopped him. He was twenty-six.
Mumia: What are you trying to say?
Coretta: Every era has its twenty-six year-old man.
Mumia: What’s that mean?
Coretta: He gave his life. There is always something to give. To give or give up, whatever seemed most precious to us. To give in order to gain the essential. What’s most essential for a lion? His mane or his voice?
Mumia: You’re speaking to me in riddles. What do you mean by that? I don’t understand you. Coretta? Coretta?
Mumia alone in front of the handprints.
Mumia: Yes, Coretta, yes, I am a lion in a cage. I turn in circles, I turn in circles. They wanted my skin, but they won’t have it. They shut up my anger, wanting to smother me, drown me in my rage, in my spitting hatred. But no, I have my children, my wife, my family, I have my love, my people outside. That passes through the bars, and it pierces their armored glass. They can’t pull out this heart, they’ll never get it. Thirty years already, thirty years and I’m still here. Yes, I am a lion in a cage and I roar, I scream at the whole entire universe. People run to me, they listen to me. Even the dead, the tortured get up and come to my cell. Malcolm is my friend. Martin is my friend. Yes, my friends, my fathers, I am their son because they bore me, because I was born of their anger, because I was born of their love. I was born? Was I really born, Mama? Was I really born? Coretta, Coretta, was I really born? They killed my existence. They buried me alive. But I am a root. Winter is long, winter is long, but spring will come. I’ll grow back. I will be reborn. I am strength. I am the earth. This hair has held on for thirty years. Thirty years of love. How I loved it. How I took care of it. Look how beautiful it is. Like rays of sun. That upsets them. They want to cut it, they want to scalp me. Like the Indians, right, Running Bear? Like the Indians. Running Bear, why did you leave me? I was your friend. I was an Indian too. Like you. We are Indians because we are Americans. Because the land belongs to us. You wanted to find your ancestors, their prairies. But you know, Running Bear, the Promised Land is not up there. It’s out there, on the other side of the glass. No, Running Bear, I will not go with you. Life is there, on the other side, I will not abandon it. I was supposed to be reborn. Do you want my hair? You’re demanding my scalp? All right, here you go. I’ll give it to you. But my voice, my voice, which speaks for those without a voice, that you will not have. Ever. I will be reborn. We’re born without hair, aren’t we? And when we die, our hair keeps living. So, here’s my hair. I have it to resell, as long as I have a head on my shoulders. It will grow back from this root. It will grow back at the end of winter. When you pull up flowers, you don’t get the bulb. Here’s a beautiful bouquet of wilted flowers. Take them. Take them.
GUARD’S VOICE OFFSTAGE: Open your mouth. Stick out your tongue. Pull back your foreskin. Lift up your balls. Bend over. Spread your cheeks. Give us your hair. Give us your hair. Give us your hair. Okay. Get dressed.
Martin walks forward, puts on his hat, and looks at himself in the “mirror.” Coretta is facing him.
Coretta: Ready, my love?
Martin: I’m coming, love, I’m coming.
Coretta: We’re going to be late.
Martin: We’re fine, we’re just fine.
He joins her, she adjusts his tie.
Coretta: You’re handsome, my Martin.
Martin: And you, you are magnificent, my Corie. Let’s go.
As they go, they pass by the outline of Martin’s body on the floor.
Martin: What’s that?
Coretta: A young man who got too friendly with a streetlight.
Martin: How did that happen?
Coretta: Well, in Philadelphia, streetlights seem to just love young blacks.
Martin: Oh, yes, that type of love, a violent sort of love. He didn’t escape?
Coretta: Yes, yes, with some bumps, a trip to the hospital, and a very, very long stint in prison. They sentenced him to death.
Martin: And he’s dead?
Coretta: No, he got off death row, but he’s still inside. He was twenty-six, Martin, like you.
Martin: I’m not twenty-six anymore.
Coretta: Oh my god, you’re right. Time has just flown by.
They approach the piano, Martin sits in front of it.
Coretta: Will you give me the A?
Martin: The A? That’s a white one, isn’t it?
Coretta: It’s a note, Martin, and it’s a blue note.
She sings and he accompanies her.
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