Thanks to Arena Players and WMAR-TV, within a single fortnight H. B. Johnson Jr. made his television and stage playwrighting debuts. This would be a notable achievement for any beginning writer, but it is especially so for Johnson, who is serving 25 years in the Maryland State Penitentiary for assault with intent to murder.
Both plays were written as entries in the annual Drama Competition for Black Playwrights, co-sponsored by WMAR and Arena Players. Johnson's TV debut, "A Gift From the Hunters," won this year's contest and was broadcast at the end of last month; his stage play, "In the Blink of an Eye," won third place last year and can currently be seen on stage at Arena Players.
With too many stage plays resembling TV shows these days, it is all the more lamentable that minimal attention seems to have gone into adapting "In the Blink of an Eye" for the stage. The script divides neatly into short segments, obviously designed to leave room for commercials. And one scene was clearly intended for a split screen.
Despite such structural difficulties, this play, like "A Gift From the Hunters," tackles a number of serious issues -- issues, which, at times, threaten to overtake the characters. The playwright seems particularly concerned with the distinction between law and justice; in both plays a citizen attempts to take justice into his own hands and ends up in trouble with the law. Also in both, a positive role model prevents a youngster from turning to a life of crime.
"In the Blink of an Eye" focuses on a man named Gordon Hughes, who takes up arms to scare off a gang of skinheads that has been terrorizing his home and family. The irony is that, though no apparent harm is done, Gordon -- not the skinheads -- ends up imprisoned.
The script has some holes; for example, the exact nature of Gordon's crime, conviction and eventual sentence is never explained. And the writing and production are less polished than "A Gift From Hunters," which had the benefit of an extra year of writing experience, as well as TV's glitzier production values.
In general, Johnson's writing is hampered by an over-composed style that makes the dialogue difficult to deliver. Nonetheless, Arena's production features a largely competent cast, directed by Irene Heigh and headed by Marlon Brandon, who palpably conveys Gordon's barely repressed rage. Only Michelle Maxwelle as his peacemaking wife, seems to strain for naturalism.
In its 10-year history, the Drama Competition for Black Playwrights has produced scripts of varying quality. However, the contest remains a commendable way to encourage new writers. This season Arena Players deserves extra commendation for mounting not only "In the Blink of an Eye," but also two other past entries.
And though the current example suggests more work needs to be done to properly convert these teleplays to the stage, the very act of mounting them is an admirable demonstration of the theater's support of local talent.
'In the Blink of an Eye'
When: Fridays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Through April 5.
Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.
Call: (410) 728-6500.