When "A Gift From the Hunters" premiered at the Arena Players Wednesday night, there was one notable absence: the playwright, Harry B. Johnson Jr.
His seat was in a different house -- the Maryland State Penitentiary.
The winner of WMAR's 10th annual Drama Competition for Black Playwrights is serving 25 years without parole for assault with intent to murder and robbery with a deadly weapon.
He has been in and out of jail since he was 15. He has used heroin, even while incarcerated, he says. And, by his own admission, he has brought shame to his father -- a Pentecostal minister -- and his family.
"It sounds like I'm a horrible person," says Johnson, 45. "But somewhere lurking deep inside this monstrous image . . . there is a decent and caring human being."
Slightly built, he stands 5-feet-11, yet weighs only 140 pounds. His thin frame has earned him the nickname of "Mr. Skinny" among other inmates. He's commonly seen in a navy knit cap, sometimes to the annoyance of prison guards who tell him to remove it. And his penetrating eyes are usually hidden behind glasses.
After 7 1/2 years in prison, writing has helped him discover a more decent side of himself, he says. "Human experience doesn't stop at a prison gate. With writing, I've found what I've been looking for all my life -- some meaning, some comprehension of my existence, why I'm here."
The judges for the contest agreed, giving his script top honors over 71 others and the chance to be televised tomorrow night at 7 on Channel 2.
"What impressed me about the writing was that it was very real. I thought it had character and motivation," says Donald Owens, a judge who was stage director for the play.
Johnson's hour-long play is largely autobiographical, focusing on how drugs and violence forever alter the lives of three men and a boy.
As a youngster in West Baltimore, Johnson's own life was changed by these forces, he says.
The only son of a minister and a domestic, he was raised in a strict household with six sisters. He was expelled from Booker T. Washington High School in the eighth grade for truancy and, from then on, it seemed, came trouble after trouble.
He worked as a cook and dishwasher ("one dead-end job after another") until he got involved in crime and drugs. At 15, he began sniffing glue and using barbiturates, he says. That same year he got into his first fist fight with a police officer.
"Things went downhill from there," he says.
He first served time at age 17 for "a storehouse break-in," he says. That was followed by four months in the Baltimore City Jail for assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. In the 1970s, he was given probation for robbery with a deadly weapon and narcotics possession charges.
His crimes took their toll on his family. "I tried all I could to teach him right," says his father, H. B. Johnson. "There were times I had to take the money I had to get the children Easter clothes to get a lawyer and get him out of jail."
Anxious to start anew, Harry B. Johnson Jr. went to North Carolina to live near his grandmother in 1973. But several years later, he was back in jail -- serving six years for robbery, he says.
All of that led up to 1982 when, after hours of "doing cocaine and drinking gin," he and several friends robbed a Glen Burnie insurance agency, he says. Johnson admits his gun was fired, hitting an employee in the shoulder, but, he says, it was an accidental shooting.
A jury disagreed. He was sentenced to 25 years without parole and 10 additional years for a handgun violation.
Home to Johnson these days is a single cell, roughly 6-by-8 feet, that includes a television and typewriter. It's there that he pounds out poetry, plays -- and an untitled novel about murder and revenge.
Apart from his own life, he was inspired to write "A Gift From the Hunters" after reading about innocent children dying in drug-related shootings. "Children were dropping like flies all over the city" he recalls. "I guess I screamed. When the scream came out, it was the play."
His play caught the attention of NBC's "Today" show which is scheduled to broadcast an interview with Johnson Monday. A two-time veteran of the contest, Johnson's previous play, "In the Blink of an Eye," won third prize last year and is scheduled to be produced March 13 through April 5 by Arena Players.
The works of Samuel Beckett, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright introduced him to the wonders of the theater. Though largely self-taught, he has written essays and plays which have been featured in The Evening Sun, Southern Exposure Magazine, and Communique News.
But poetry is his major interest: "I love it with a disgraceful passion."
He received his G.E.D. while in a North Carolina prison and is enrolled in the Notre Dame College's writing tutorial program and in the Coppin State College Extension Service program, where he is studying math, cultural anthropology and other subjects in classes held at the penitentiary.
Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty oversees the Notre Dame writing course and has been an adviser to Johnson.
"Mr. Johnson is very creative, self-motivated and teachable," she says. "He is a disciplined writer. I worked with him on revising his novel . . . . I think he has a future as a writer."
Not everyone believes a man with Johnson's criminal record deserves such accolades. While he has received much support in the penitentiary, several inmates and guards have resented seeing him in the spotlight, he says.
But others perhaps hear echoes of another man's life -- that of Charles Dutton. Johnson is a friend of Mr. Dutton's, a former penitentiary inmate who was was the star of the New York production of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" and is currently playing the lead role in "Roc," a Fox network sitcom.
"Roc has been inspiration to me, but Roc is an inspiration to all men, not just men in jail," he says. "I met Charles here at the penitentiary when '60 Minutes' was doing his profile."
He has since submitted a script to the show and is waiting to hear whether it will be accepted.
As for his $1,000 prize, some will go to his 15-year-old daughter Azalea; the rest goes into the bank. The script is dedicated to his other daughter, Nina, who died at age 16.
His days of using drugs are also behind him, he says. "It doesn't interest me any more. . . . There's no mystery or suspense in it. I get a better feeling from writing," he says.
But the best feeling of all came when he called his father with news of his prize. He was the first person Johnson wanted to talk to after getting the letter.
"I've always wanted my father to be proud of me," he says. "Even though I knew he loved me, I never thought he was proud of me until that day."