Raw Truth Playwright OyamO Skillfully Recreates the Horror and Anguish Felt by Severely Mistreated Inmates in a Black Georgia Prison during the Great Depression

Article excerpt

Byline: Jack Helbig Daily Herald Correspondent

"Let Me Live"

- Mini-review: A searing, soul-withering journey into the hellish world of the Georgia prison system during the Great Depression

- Location: Goodman Studio Theatre, 200 S. Columbus Drive, Chicago

- Times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and April 23 and May 5; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays.

- Parking: $5.50 in Grant Park underground garage

- Tickets: $18-$26

- Box office: (312) 443-3800

"Let Me Live" is not an easy play to love - or even to sit through.

And that's the way it's supposed to be. When African-American playwright OyamO set out to write a play about life in the black wing of a Georgia prison circa 1932, he wanted it to be as brutally honest and intense as a racially mixed audience could stand. (Or maybe a click or two higher than your average audience can tolerate.)

He did this to serve a higher purpose - to make audiences face the horrors of the chain gang system. In this racist system, black men were sentenced to years and years of hellish servitude even for minor infractions. In the play, for example, one inmate is serving nearly 10 years for stealing two biscuits. Another inmate is serving time for vagrancy even though at the time of his arrest he had only arrived in Georgia from Chicago an hour before.

For two acts we witness every dehumanizing humiliation these men suffer. Some of them must sleep on the floor, for example. They have no running water and must use an old bucket as a toilet. We also see how violence and cruelty are woven into every square inch of life in the prison.

One of the inmates clearly suffers from the early symptoms of syphilis - his body is covered in red, welt-like lesions - but he never sees a doctor.

What little plot there is revolves around a young political activist named Angelo who was thrown into prison for violating Georgia's insurrection law, which stated that anyone who organized a protest against the status quo was guilty of inciting an insurrection - a treasonous activity punishable by death.

In fact, Angelo was only doing what a lot of people were doing in 1932 - trying to get the authorities to recognize the depth of suffering caused by the Great Depression.

Angelo is based on Angelo Herndon, a celebrated activist given "Twenty years for Free Speech," as one headline put it. Herndon eventually related his experiences in a book, also called "Let Me Live," on which this play is based.

This story had been percolating in OyamO's head since the early 1990s, when he happened upon an old copy of this rare book in an abandoned building in Harlem. …