We are proud to announce Lee Edward Colston, II, as winner of the most recent Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award for his play, Solitary.
Lee is a prison guard turned actor, playwright, director, acting teacher and author. After leaving his job at the Department of Corrections, Lee trained classically as an actor, receiving a BFA from the Brind School of Theatre at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Acting at The Juilliard School, as a member of Group 45. In addition to his talents as a playwright, Lee has appeared in over twenty-five productions, including Avenue X (7 Barrymore nominations), Cradle Will Rock (Irene Ryan nomination), Romeo & Juliet, SANKOFA, Once on This Island, and Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love. He also starred as Harpo in the Broadway National Tour of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and as Othello for the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival.
Lee is also a second-generation Meisner trained actor and is a founding director of The Philadelphia Meisner Technique Intensive where he teaches acting technique. He has taught over 170 actors in the Philly, DC, & New York region. In 2014 The Juilliard School named Lee as a recipient of the Jonathon Madrigano Entrepreneurial Grant to provide funding to PMTI to help offer more access to theater arts training in the Philly region.
As a playwright, Colston’s play Solitary was a 2009 winner of the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop PlayShop festival, where it received intensive workshop attention: work with a dramaturg, director and actors. His newest play Roost won the 2010 Life Media Award for BEST NEW PLAY in the Philadelphia Urban Theatre Festival. In 2012, Roost was later revived for further development by Ritual Theater Company for a reading starring veteren actor Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) and Cheryl Freeman (Disney’s Hercules, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Dead Presidents) at the Ars Nova Theater & PS 122 in New York City.
His book of poetry Phenomenal Brotha: Blood, Sweat, & Ink was released in 2005.
Our Founding Director, Debra Leigh Scott, caught up with Lee on his summer break from Juilliard, here in Philadelphia where he is running his summer sessions of the Meisner Intensive, to talk a little bit about this play, and about his work.
DLS: “Solitary” was your first play? Can you give us a bit of its backstory?
LEC: Solitary was born during my time working in the prison system. I had the privilege to come in contact with a lot of different kinds of people. Those experiences helped to shape my artistic sensibilities tremendously. I wanted to tell the stories of the men and women I met. I not only wanted to tell the stories of the incarcerated men at the prison but also the people in my neighborhood of North Philly. I wanted to tell my story.
DLS: Before heading to college, you worked for a time as a prison guard in Philadelphia. How did that experience color your feelings about Jamal and Lucius*, two of your characters in “Solitary”?
LEC: I felt like working in that environment helped me to find where my voice lived and what stories I was interested in. Jamal’s story is not unique. It’s so easy to pass judgment on him. But I often wonder what were the environmental conditions that created him. Men like Jamal don’t just ‘happen’. There are outside forces that forge men like that into who they are.
DLS: The play is largely about the interior and exterior realities of Jamal, but it is also about the times in which we live, the prison pipeline, poverty and desperation. So, can you talk a bit about the atmospheric elements of the play – the prison, the decimated community, poverty, desperation?
LEC: I wrote those elements as I experienced them. I was raised in the neighborhood Jamal describes. I’ve seen what severe poverty, drugs and educational apartheid can do to both a person and a community. It’s heart-breaking. In neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, it’s difficult for anyone to see beyond the hurt and broken glass strewn about.
DLS: Are you familiar with Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow? She talks about the ways in which the mass incarcerations in this country quite successfully replaced the old Jim Crow society and culture. How do you see your play in light of Alexander’s work?
LEC: Yes, I am familiar with the book. I actually finished it recently. I feel like much of what Ms. Alexander states is spot on and Solitary is a poetic manifestation of that. I also feel like Solitary echoes the Allegory of The Cave by Plato. Both personal responsibility and institutional racism and inequity are in a constant tug of war with one another. While men like Jamal do have to take responsibilities for their action and overcome tremendous circumstances, we cannot dismiss the handicap and booby traps placed in front of them.
DLS: You have a therapist in the play who attempts to interact with Jamal, to collect data, to make an “assessment” – what role would you say does psychiatry and psychology play in “pathologizing” our young men, especially young men of color, of impoverished conditions?
LEC: Young men of color, especially those growing up in inner cities, face near impossible odds. In the age of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, it almost feels as if we’re living in a real world version of ‘The Hunger Games’. PTSD among inner city youth is real. These kids are growing up under similar conditions that soldiers at war face. But, unfortunately, there is no VA Hospital or any other kinds of services (other than incarceration) to help these young men cope with being constantly taught that their lives have no value in America. These young men are not anomalies or monsters. They are behaving the same way anyone of any race or ethnic background would when you take away access to good education, healthcare & social services, when you offer minimal employment opportunities, when you strip arts, sports, and music programs from schools, when you cram 45 kids into a classroom, pump drugs into the community, and train the police to shoot first and let the system sort everything out. I don’t care what your race or ethnicity is; if you live under those conditions, what can we expect to happen other than the results we see every day on the news?
DLS: What are your hopes for the play? What are your hopes for the young Jamals trying to grow up in the very difficult times of 2014 America?
LEC: In all honesty, I’m not sure what I hope for with this play. What I know is that it has the power to start a conversation— with not only the Jamals of America but also those who have the power to tear down the structures in place that help to create them.
DLS: What are your own hopes? As a playwright. As an actor. You are about to enter your third year at Juilliard, to finish up an MFA in acting. Can you talk a little about your own personal journey, and about your visions and dreams for the future?
LEC: Every time I think about my personal journey I start to cry. I’m very fortunate. I could have very well been Jamal. Actually, now that I think about it… I am Jamal. I’m who Jamal could be if we remove even just two or three cards from that deck that’s stacked against him. I don’t know what the future holds for me. What I do know is that whatever it will be, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.
The Hidden River Playwrighting Award offers $1000 to the winning manuscript as well as a public reading of the winning play. Please check back for updates regarding the scheduling. Our next round of Hidden River Arts writing awards, including the playwrighting award, will deadline June 30. Please see our guidelines for further details.