Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach, Florida presented the world premier of Drew L Brown’s “Sentences” on June 9, 2017. The play was commissioned by Players under the theatre’s recently initiated New Voices program.
Drew Brow graduated from The Art Institute of Jacksonville in 2014. Of note, he is a Student Academy Award winning writer/director. An early theatrical experience in North Florida was as the co-star in ABET’s outstanding production of “Red” in 2014. He has also appeared locally in “La Cage Aux Folles” at Players and in “Never the Sinner” and “Let’s Kill Greg,” two dramatic productions by the 5 & Dime Theatre Company.
The play’s title refers to jail terms given to prisoners convicted of crimes. In a program note, Drew Brown documents its origins: when he was in the sixth grade, his mother was arrested by the FBI, found guilty of criminal activity, and sentenced to six years in prison.
The play is performed in Players by the Sea’s intimate studio theatre. The setting is a prison interior which has drab gray walls and cells with narrow bunk beds. To further create the experience of being in a prison setting, the pre-curtain music is discordant.
The first act is done in short scenes, fourteen of them, each closed by a semi-blackout. The scenes depict aspects of life in captivity; the stage crew added utilitarian chairs and tables when needed.
Robin Owens, the principal character, is portrayed by Rita Manyette, in her Players by the Sea debut. She has previously appeared in a number of professional stage and screen productions. She first met Brown when performing in the 5 & Dime’s “Elegies: For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens,” and has since collaborated with him and Ramdeen on a number of film projects. Manyette’s performance conveyed the deep pain and disorientation experienced by a woman facing a bleak future without options.
The first scene begins with Robin in jail dreaming about Bethany (Ashley Leake), her young daughter, who is dancing. The scenes that follow show the prisoners engaged in various activities, as they play cards in the recreation room, work in the laundry (for thirty cents a day), use the two pay phones, eat in the cafeteria (while trying to avoid brawls with bullies), participate in exercise sessions, and talk with social workers.
Robin confides the details of her arrest to one of her friends. After divorcing her abusive husband, she began dating a guy she met on the internet. Unknown to her, he downloaded pornographic images of children to her computer, leading to her arrest. While she was found guilty, he was never charged. Her ex-husband has regained custody of their daughter, and he refuses to allow her to have any contact with her mother: no visits, no telephone calls, no letters.
As an audience, we were privy to conversations between the prisoners. Inmate Mona Tillman (Ruth Charlene Davis) befriends Robin and tells her she is in for life for life for killing her boyfriend. Sylvia Donovan (Arden Trusty) is a young woman who exchanges sex with a guard for the drugs she needs. Cinnamon Shepard (Roz McCoy), in for forty years for murder, uses crude language and is loud and forceful. Celestina Rodriguez (Julie Ann Dinneweth) is a social butterfly when it comes to jail, a two-time loser in for a seven-year stretch. Other inmates, with sentences for tax evasion, manslaughter, grand theft, fraud, and embezzlement, include Katherine Herndon, Clarissa Fiegl, Juli Novo Disla, Jullian Poland, and Lauren O’Grady.
The cast included three principal guards, who were tough-minded, tough-tongued, and had the most contact with the prisoners. They included Harris (Tanya Cummings), Jefferson (David McMahon), and Gregorio (David Gile). Also appearing as either prison guards or federal agents were Alexis Boucugnani, Cory Simmons, Filipe Gusmao, and Heather Eggleston (who also played Dr. Sherman).
The second act had eight scenes, with action that included a drug exchange, a shooting, and questioning by federal agents. Since the play will run another weekend at Players, and may be staged by other theatres in the futures, we will not reveal the ending.
The costumes by Amy Hancock consisted of brown tops and trousers for all the inmates. The prison guards wore blue shirts and black pants with the appropriate holsters and guns, while the federal agents dressed in black.
Ashley Leake’s dance scenes as Rita’s daughter were choreographed by Abigail Hinson. Kayla Fender served as Stage Manager. Kyle Piety handled the audio recording aspects and made it possible for the audience to hear both ends of the phone calls. Hunter Steinke and Sarah Stansel were the stage hands.
“Sentences” leaves you emotionally winded but still engaged with the events. Drew Brown has a superb ear for dialogue in a show that moved us into a world beyond the familiar with characters who attack, spar, confess, regret, and reflect. Don’t miss it.