The letter is what makes it real. There it is, in the mailbox, folded between a supermarket flyer and my upstairs neighbour’s cellphone bill: a standard white envelope with my name written in a hand I don’t recognize and an ominous return address: Washington State Prison.
“Wait, is your name seriously Johnnie Walker? You must love or hate scotch with that name. Now that that’s out of the way, I need to apologize for taking so long to respond . . . ”
Before the letter, it’s just an idea. A story to scroll through. A link to share with the echo chamber: Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, Angry.
“ . . . I’m glad to hear the media articles about me are reaching so far, it really feels great to receive support from so far away, it makes me feel very hopeful . . . ”
Of course, that’s where I first hear about Luke: a couple of friends post links about a young man from Atlanta (twenty-one-years-old, practically a kid!) about to be sent to jail because he had injured several other men while defending himself from what he claimed was a homophobic assault. The story breaks my heart; the night I first read it, I have trouble sleeping. I re-post the link myself along with a question: “What can we do?”
“ . . . It also means a lot to hear how affected you were by my story, though I hope you’re not losing too much sleep over me. My situation is certainly an aggravating one, but unfortunately not so uncommon . . . ”
What can we do? What can I do? I’m a writer and a theatre artist. Could I write something about Luke? A play, maybe?
There’s a support committee, and they have a website, and the website lists an address where Luke can be reached alongside a call to action for people to write him letters during his incarceration. And so, for the first time in my life, I write a letter to a convicted felon, pitching him on a theatre project.
“ . . . The project you’ve described here sounds fantastic and I’d love to see it come to fruition. Please feel free; I’m flattered. If you need more information about anything or want to better know my experience, if you have any questions my answering would help, please don’t hesitate to ask . . . ”
But what information? What questions? The truth is, I’ve never done something like this before. I’ve written plays before—lots. But all of them are fictional. Yes, even that super revealing solo show, the one that always makes people say “how much of that was true?” And while writing plays always means some degree of research, I’m not used to court transcripts, or mugshots, or letters from real people who are still alive. I’m not used to letters from prison.
“ . . . Things are pretty laid back here, especially in my dorm. I start my detail as a teacher’s aide for the GED courses they offer inmates here soon. All in all, this seems like an easy enough place to do time . . . ”
So, I think about bodies. I think about how the articles say Luke was seen dancing with and kissing men at a New Year’s Eve party. Bodies on a dance floor. And later, in the backyard, five men with knives jump him. He has a knife too. Bodies in conflict; bodies at war. I want to show people those bodies. I want them to see what it would look like to be surrounded by five adult men who don’t care if they kill you. I wanted to see for myself.
“ . . . I’m glad you already seem to realize that my fighting back was largely a by-product of luck, and what makes me stand out from other who have been bashed is more so that than my ‘ferocity’ or courage . . . ”
I plan for a week’s residency at Videofag to break ground on the project. I’ll think about bodies. I’ll bring the letter. I’ll read every scrap of information about Luke and the knife fight the internet can provide. Which leads me to Meredith Talusan’s mesmerizing longform piece “The Queer Case of Luke O’Donovan.” Which changes everything.
“. . . The systems that claim to offer us justice are run by those who would see you and I dead . . . ”
This is the moment I realize I’m writing a true crime play. (How is it possible I hadn’t realized that before?) And as any true crime enthusiast can tell you, the crime is never as simple as it initially appears, and the truth has a way of becoming slippery, contradictory, elusive. It’s hard now to remember what kind of play I was imagining writing before reading Meredith’s article, but it’s after reading it that I write myself into the play as a character. And it’s after reading it that I start imaging a Queer Chorus helping to guide me, to challenge me, to push me toward the truth and pull me away from it (often in the same instant), and act as de facto theatre scientists, testing out the many different variations on the narrative we discover and determining which ones hold water.
In the five years since I started writing Shove It Down My Throat, I’ve travelled to Atlanta. I’ve poured over fifty pages of anonymous comments on a VICE article. Skyped with the woman who drove Luke to the hospital. Facebook chatted with the mother of one of the men he fought. Participated in more workshops with more actors of more drafts than I can count. Seen the backyard where the fight broke out. Seen the courthouse where Luke was sentenced. Sat working on the play in my living room. Sat working on the play in Montreal. Sat working on the play at the Toronto Western ER. Sat working on the play in the Buddies in Bad Times dressing room for so long that it became one of the play’s main locations. And I met Luke in person in San Francisco.
But none of that happens without the letter. The letter is what makes it real.
I remember holding it in my hands for the first time in disbelief, as though I’d received a candid, handwritten letter from . . . a celebrity? No, stranger than that—a letter from a fictional character. Someone from the novel you read before bed or the TV show you binged last weekend writing your name and address in ballpoint pen next to a magic stamp that will bring the envelope out of the page and through the laptop screen and into your mailbox.
Only Luke isn’t a fictional character. And while his face may have been printed on a giant banner and marched through The Hague as part of a queer protest in the Netherlands, he isn’t a celebrity. He’s a real person. And while he might have thrown my letter away, or written “thanks, but no thanks,” or written “fuck off,” instead he wrote back and said:
“You should know I’m doing very well and am glad to hear from you. Write back if you like.
Caged but Never Tamed,
Shove It Down My Throat, written by Johnnie Walker, runs March 30 to April 14 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (in collaboration with Pandemic Theatre). For tickets and more info, click here