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My First Three Act

July 31, 2019

It’s always a satisfying feeling when you have progressed enough with a piece of writing that it feels like time share it with others.  In one sense, the work is “finished,” although once you share it with other writers you know it’s not even close.  Yet, it’s still a lovely place to be–you’ve gotten this far, so you know your piece has potential.  It has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it likely has characters you like, and the odd good line.

My most recent project is special for a couple of reasons. One, it’s my first three act play (I have written three one acts and one two act).  Even though I still love screenwriting, and even wrote a poem this week, I find I am thoroughly enjoying my foray into playwrighting.  It feels like every new idea wants to manifest itself as a play.  Who am I to resist?

The second reason this project is special is the topic:  the American Indian boarding school system. If you aren’t familiar with the history, in 1879, the United States and Canadian governments instituted an educational program for the children of their native populations. Native children were taken from their parents against their will and placed in these boarding schools throughout the country.  In these schools, the students were not allowed to speak their own language, practice their religion, have contact with their families, or express even the slightest inkling of individuality.  Any such infraction was met with abuse and violence.

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The point of this was for the US and Canada to solve their “Indian Problem” by eradicating native culture from it’s youngest members.  The objective, according to Captain Richard Henry Platt, the army officer selected by the US to create and supervise the school system was to “kill the Indian, save the man” in every pupil.  Research indicates that the rate of abuse in these schools was 100%.  Since the operation of these schools was contracted to the Catholic church, sexual abuse was also rampant.  And if you are starting to feel grateful that such a practice has the virtue of being distant history, you should know that the last school in this system stayed open until 1990.

I had never heard of this system until my grandfather told me about it when I was a teenager.  The reason he saw fit to share this with me was that he himself had been enrolled in one of these schools, and six decades later, he was still traumatized by the memory.  He was more willing to discuss fighting in the Pacific theater during World War II than his experiences in the boarding schools. The only thing he told me is that he had tried to escape three times–and once he hid in a barn.

So I have written a play set in 1950 wherein a teenage boy named Daniel escapes from one of these schools and hides in a barn.  Since my grandfather gave me no details, I have decided to fill them in.  The barn is owned by a family of Sikhs from Punjab who have recently fled to escape the horrors of Partition.  They must decide whether to hand Daniel over to law enforcement, or protect him and risk their immigrant status. Daniel, meanwhile, has to decide whether he can trust this family of strangers and allow himself to be helped or take his chances on the run and riding the rails.

The title of the play is “Save the Man.”  I will always wonder if my grandfather were still alive, he would be able to watch it.



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