Real-life prison story inspires CKP play
A chance encounter with a high school classmate who ended up in prison for rape inspired Ara Barlieb to pen his newest original play “A Softening of Her Eyes.”
The play, Barlieb’s 10th original play performed by Crowded Kitchen Players, has its world premiere June 8 at the Charles A. Brown Ice House in Bethlehem.
“A Softening of Her Eyes” tells the story of a charismatic black man on trial for rape who escapes the courtroom and goes to a radio station where he asks to tell his side of the story on air.
The seed of the play was planted when Barlieb ran into his former classmate, who was on trail for rape at the time, while he was filming a documentary about incarceration at Northampton County Prison more than four decades ago.
“I was shocked to the ground because he had been a high achiever athletically, musically, and socially when I’d known him just a few years earlier,” Barlieb says.
After being convicted, the man had his conviction overturned on appeal, and he was released. However, before long, he was again arrested for rape, tried, and convicted. He spent the rest of his life, nearly 40 years, in prison. Barlieb visited him in Dallas State Correctional Institution shortly before he died.
“We had a lengthy, emotional, and largely unsettling conversation about the tragic turns his life had taken so many years before when he was still young and literally had the world by the throat,” Barlieb says.
Barlieb says what happened was so surprising because everyone who knew the man felt he would succeed at anything he chose to do.
“Women and men threw themselves at him,” Barlieb says.
Still, Barlieb admits something wasn’t quite right.
Barlieb says there were “highly-disturbing hints of a disrupted and abusive childhood” along with “glimpses of distressing relationships with much older women and men, including teachers and relatives, during his teenage years.”
The man was drafted and sent to fight in the unpopular Vietnam War and came back suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“In retrospect, it now looks like he never stood a chance,” Barlieb says.
Barlieb says he created the fictional character Emmanuel Morris, inspired not only by his former classmate, but also other troubled men he had interviewed and filmed over the years.
In “A Softening on Her Eyes,” Emmanuel is an Iraq War veteran and former pop music artist, who, after he escapes from custody during his trial for assault and rape, shows up at a Philadelphia public radio station, asking if he can tell his story live on the air before he is captured and sent back to jail.
Barlieb says the title came from the character’s perception of the availability of women.
“As a pop singer, he would look across the room at girl and sing to her,” Barlieb says. “At first, there would be fear and then he would see what he called a softening of her eyes. But it was an illusion that allowed him to think the person he was attacking wanted it.”
The play is part of the “Voices of Conscience: Toward Racial Understanding,” initiative started in 2015 by Crowded Kitchen Players to provide a forum on racial discrimination. Other theaters, including Selkie Theatre, Allentown Public Theatre and the Basement Poets joined in the effort.
“I think it is more common for a black man to be arrested and tried for these crimes,” Barlieb says. “Juries are more likely to find a black man guilty.”
The play takes place simultaneously in the courtroom, on one side of the stage, and the radiot station, on the other side.
The case looks airtight and the defense attorney tells Emmanuel he doesn’t “have a prayer,” but Emmanuel insists the sex was consensual.
“I wanted to start a discussion about consent,” Barlieb says. “The scary thing is a lot believe assault is consensual. They are so out of touch with reality that they don’t realize ‘no’ means ‘no.’”
Barlieb says he has been working on the play for three years and cast members also collaborated on the script.
Playing Emmanuel is Will Alexander Jr. who starred in Crowded Kitchen’s 2015 production of Walter Mosley’s dark comedy “The Fall of Heaven,” which was the first play in the “Voices of Conscience” initiative.
The cast includes Bruce Brown, Trish Cipoletti, James Dziedzic, Dan Ferry, Tom Harrison, Bill Joachim, Ryan MacNamara, David Oswald, Alexandra Racines, Donald M. Swan, Jr., Florence Taylor, Pamela Wallace, Nancy Welsh, Brian Wendt and Felicia White.
“It’s fun to do an original play because no one has ever heard these words before,” Barlieb says. “An original play may not be better or worse than other plays, but it is fresh.”
“A Softening of Her Eyes,” 8 p.m. June 8-19 and 15-16; 2 p.m. June 10 and 17; Ice House, 56 River St., Bethlehem. Tickets: ckplayers.com; 610-395-7176.