Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dartmoor Prison and America’s Promise of Freedom

By Charlie O'Malley, Literary Management and Dramaturgy Intern

“Freedom? We’re in prison, man. There isn’t any damn freedom for us. We are just the mules that pulls freedom’s plow.”
-Governor, Dartmoor Prison

As any presidential election approaches, the concept of “freedom” is bandied about between candidates, journalists, pundits and voters. Indeed, America has always prided itself on its own brand of liberty, however complicated and challenging that idea may be. Carlyle Brown’s new play, Dartmoor Prison, which kicks off the Goodman’s New Stages Amplified tonight, takes pause to question notions of freedom in America’s history. The play explores American identity and patriotism, as history has defined the two notions, and questions how democracy operates today.

(Photo: Playwright Carlyle Brown. Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

Inspired by real events, Dartmoor Prison takes place during the War of 1812, in a racially segregated prison yard for American prisoners of war. As the 4th of July approaches, tensions arise in the yard as the white prisoners, eager to commemorate their country’s independence, plan a celebration in prison yard number 4, home to the African American prisoners. The informal ruler of number 4, a black sailor named King Dick, questions the liberties that America offers given the profits that it makes from slavery. Confined in a prison with little food, abysmal living conditions, and an American agent who will do little to help them and dwindling morale, the prisoners are forced to reevaluate their expectations of liberty: Can they expect it? Do they deserve it? Is it promised to them? With the country of big ideas and grandiose promises in its infancy, the future for these men is limited, and as their British captors strengthen their grip on the prisoners’ minds, they must decide what price they are willing to pay to be truly free.

Dartmoor Prison
is a story that immerses itself in a consuming exploration of American identity, and the questions that it raises about liberty dive to the very core of American selfhood and the promises on which America was built. Promises of freedom are inherently compromised by slavery, poverty, imperialism, and prejudices ingrained in the American consciousness. The questions that plague the prisoners in Dartmoor are the same ones with which we grapple every day—in the news, in our classrooms, and in the streets. In Brown’s intricately woven drama, characters of various backgrounds spur, challenge and provoke, keeping the tensions high and the debate rumbling constantly.

Each performance of Dartmoor Prison, like all of the shows in New Stage Amplified, will be followed by a talkback with artists who worked on the show and led by members of the Goodman’s artistic staff. All audience members are invited to share their thoughts, voice their questions and take part in the process of creating a new work of drama.

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