Cassandra Medley interview with Kathleen Dennehy
Cassandra Medley interview with Kathleen Dennehy
Cell is very real and all too tragic. Your characters and plot feel completely in and of the present moment. It packs such a wallop it's almost a relief when it ends because the tension is perfectly ratcheted up from page 1 until the gripping conclusion. The characters each have such tightly interlocking struggles and weaknesses that it's quite perfectly designed. And yet, it's never preachy or anything other than a clear and vivid depiction of where our country is right now in terms of the collision of our nearly inhumane policies regarding immigration and the few options left to the barely-treading-water working class who live with no safety net save family who are equally if not more at risk, which, to me, is the epitome of tragedy.
What motivated you to write this play?
I saw the film, "The Visitor" which depicts a character caught and incarcerated in a immigration detention center in New Jersey. The center itself is not really emphasized in the film, but I was very struck by the imagery of the environment and the fact that African-American and Latino male, and female guards were portrayed as the ones doing the difficult and demeaning on-site duties.
"The Visitor" inspired me to do further research using Human Rights Watch, Detention Watch and Amnesty International. I also reviewed several documentaries and read extensive interviews taken from detainees, and from guards. I learned that the immigration detention issue is a crisis spreading throughout the US, Canada, Britain, and Europe, and that the abuses--sexual, physical, psychological are everywhere. Even more heartbreaking, this is a situation where you have poor people "guarding" other poor people, and also inexperienced, untrained people supervising people who most often don't speak their language. Shockingly, this is a situation where children are often crammed with adults – their parents, or otherwise, and medical attention is sporadic.
In the United States the detention centers have become private corporate institutions whose main focus is on profit rather than humane treatment. Time and again the centers, which exist all over the United States, are exposed after riots, or embarrassing internal catastrophes, such as accidental deaths of inmates, or when horrific abuse is finally revealed. Then the center will be closed down only to reopen in another location. The prison industry now maintains a powerful lobby and works with the Department of Homeland Security, which exerts unquestioned influence on our government policy and public media. For the most part, the majority of the American public remains ignorant or indifferent to the situation inside the detention centers. In the post-9/11 culture, attitudes towards so-called "illegal immigrants" are not welcoming, though a reading of US history demonstrates that our country was never really welcoming to new immigrants.
Did you initially write this as a full-length play and truncate it, or did you always intend to make this play this length?
Cell was always a one-act play. I wrote it to submit for consideration to the Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon of one-act plays. I have now completed a full-length version of the play.
Do you tend to write plays with social-political content?
I am often interested in writing plays that personalize the political. I am fascinated by characters whose interpersonal relationships, and private demons are being brought about by the socio–political circumstances and environments that they find themselves dealing with, either consciously or unconsciously.
The character of Cerise is particularly heartbreaking. She is juggling the most and has the most to lose- and on top of that is a recovering alcoholic with a terrible secret. Her problems are grounded completely in reality and the deck appears to be stacked against her, and consequently against her daughter as well. Did you create these characters or do you actually know people in this situation?
Cerise really just sprang forth from my imagination. I feel I know these characters all so well. They are part of the Detroit Michigan working class culture I grew up in, and return to whenever I visit. These are people who are desperate to work and to keep working, desperate to hold onto their version of the American dream. These are honest, decent, hard-working people who are often caught up in the cycle of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, while also striving to maintain their religious convictions as a way of coping with the stresses and hardship. These are people who have no idea about the destructive, inhumane system that they rely on, and support.
Where did you learn so much about immigration detention facilities? (Or did you take poetic license?)
Please see my answer to question one. Also, the Internet is an excellent source of finding out about immigration detention. Detention Watch, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, American Friends Service Committee. I would encourage your readers to simply Google: "abuses U.S. immigration detention."
Did aspects of The Patriot Act inspire this play or were these policies being strictly enacted previous to the Patriot Act?
The fact that most working class people in our country are not really that aware of The Patriot Act and how it affects their lives, and how their fears and prejudices are being manipulated is what fascinates me the most.
The ending of the play offers little hope. Was it a struggle to not create a "Norma Rae" moment? Or do you feel it's more imperative to leave us pretty demolished at the end? It's deeply affecting and stays in the mind and the emotional mind for days afterward.
Yes, it is my intention to leave the audience devastated by the end of the play. This is the truth staring us in the face at the present moment. The working poor are, in my opinion, doing our social dirty work at the moment; it's that or starve on the streets.
Tell me how you came to playwriting?
I've always loved the theater, and was a child actor back in Detroit Michigan. I've been writing plays since 1980. My first play "A... My Name is Alice, was produced in 1982. I'm simply in love with, and enthralled by the idea of my characters coming alive on stage right in front of my eyes, and watching an audience experience them.
Do you feel like you have a particular mission as a writer?
I suppose my mission as a writer is to try to convey what I feel are the psychological complexities involved in being alive. And to create even more in-depth African-American, and other characters of color to be included in the tapestry that is contemporary American theater literature.
Who are writers and plays/books that inspire you?
I'm always inspired by: Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Adrienne Kennedy, Marie-Irene Fornes, David Hare, Tom Stoppard to name a few.
Tell me about your education and if you studied playwrighting.
I attended the University of Michigan, but my real study of playwriting, my real training came through working as a literary manager for the American Place Theater and other off-Broadway theaters back in the 70's. Curt Dempster of the Ensemble Studio Theatre was my main teacher and mentor; Marie-Irene Fornes was another teacher. I had the great good fortune to study and absorb elements of the playwriting craft as a member of two extraordinary playwriting groups: the Rainbow Studio Collective in the 80s, and the Ensemble Studio Theatre Playwrights Unit where my membership continues to this day. In other words, I had the great, good fortune to be a journeyman student in the days when the NY non-profit THEATRE was supported by federal, state, local, and corporate grants and it was possible to study in that way.
What are you currently working on?
A residency at the Smithsonian!
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