The year is 2012, the place is Huntsville Texas, the setting is the prison Huntsville Unit and the subject is a 54 year old African American man named Marvin Lee Wilson who was executed by lethal injection in August of that year. For playwright Declan Greene, the genesis moment for penning I Am a Miracle happened back in 2012, when he read an article about Wilson – who not so incidentally was a man with an IQ of 61 and therefore should have been legally classified as “mentally retarded” (the actual jargon used…), and therefore ineligible for the death penalty. “I thought his story was incredibly sad and horrible, but I was really struck with his final words, which read, in part: ‘Take me home, Jesus. Take me home, Lord. I ain’t left yet. Must be a miracle. I am a miracle.’ They stuck in my brain and wouldn’t leave me. So this play started with trying to figure out why these words were so affecting.”
Greene goes on to say that I Am a Miracle is a response to this miscarriage of justice. But also, it asks a bunch of questions about what this miscarriage means in the here and now.
“The idea that, in the Western world, we are bound to the atrocities of the past – making the same mistakes over and over and over again – and are in desperate need to break this cycle. As a playwright, any new play I write has to contain an element that scares me. For I Am A Miracle, it’s imagining a form of utopia – a very daggy and earnest idea, but one that, I think, is very important right now. In 2015, our imaginations have been increasingly co-opted and turned inwards, away from collectivisation or any communal dreaming of future possibilities. We believe the revolutions are all over; we’re imprisoned here in the shitty, inequitable political conditions of the present, without access to any idea of an alternative future. Like Marvin Lee Wilson, we really need a miracle. And this play tries to imagine what that miracle might be.”
The work was not without its challenges admits Greene. The project took ages to complete and “…was probably one of the slowest and most arduous writing processes I’ve ever been through!” Greene’s original approach was to write something that was much more directly about Marvin Wilson’s life story, but he abandoned that idea early on because he felt like it wouldn’t have an appropriate kind of resonance here in Melbourne in 2015.
“It’s a very familiar story – about an African-American man, born into poverty, who falls into crime, does (or doesn’t do) something terrible, and dies on death row in a miscarriage of justice. But the familiarity of the story is precisely its tragedy – the fact that these horrendous, legally-protected lapses in the Law happen over and over and over again, in the US and Australia and throughout the Western world. So I decided to write a commentary on Wilson’s story, rather than just telling it straight.”
“The play now has three narrative strands, and I think about them as being written for Marvin Lee Wilson, rather than about him. The first story is set in the year 1775, in the Dutch slave colony of Suriname – and is based on a real journal of an army captain named John Stedman. The second story is set in Melbourne, 2015 – and is a fictional story about a man who becomes entrapped by his carer. And the final story is a moment of operatic fantasy, where a divine figure imagines a reversal of history – beginning again from a point of radical justice.”
Greene is no stranger to writing works that stir both the imagination and the heart. Moth and Pompeii, LA, deliver both in spades. Greene is also partner to Ash Flanders in the independent theatre company Sisters Grimm who have produced such wonderfully mad theatre as Summertime in the Garden of Eden and Calpurnia Descending also at the Malthouse.
One of the plays Greene is most proud of is Pompeii, LA, which was his first collaboration with Matt Lutton, the director of I Am A Miracle. “I think what I loved about that show is that the production was almost inseparable from the text. Matt brought such a clear, exciting vision, and we ended up banding ideas for script and staging back and forth, and challenging one another, until we created something that felt, to me, very unique and special.”
I Am a Miracle is also of the unique and special variety. A story that needs telling by a man who can tell it for a man who could not. Such is the power and importance of the theatre.
Malthouse are saying it’s “not for the timid” – and Greene definitely thinks that’s true. “There are some very heavy moments and ideas in there. But I think there’s also a sense of catharsis. It builds up to an incredible crescendo of language and music – thanks to an amazing score from David Chisholm – that I hope will have people leaving the theatre inspired to imagine a new set of possibilities for the future.”
I Am a Miracle stars Melita Jurisic (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Bert LaBonté (Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop).
I Am a Miracle
July 18 – August 9