Out of prison and a drama prize in 2 weeks' time


H. B. Johnson Jr., a convicted felon dying of AIDS whose 35-year sentence was commuted by Gov. William Donald Schaefer last month, has won first place in the 12th annual drama competition for black playwrights sponsored by WMAR-TV (Channel 2) and Arena Players. His play, "Smooth Disappointment," is a domestic drama about a teen-age girl who tries to help her stepfather conquer his drug addiction.

Reached at home, where he is under house arrest, Johnson, 46, said the news of his award "is right up there with finding out that you're going home. Now, nothing equals that when you're in prison, but it's up there because this play is so special to me because it gives us a chance to hold our children up to the sun."

playwright, poet and essayist whose work frequently appears in The Evening Sun, Johnson previously won first place in the 1992 WMAR-Arena Players contest for his play, "A Gift From the Hunters." This year, his script was chosen from among more than 100 entries, the largest number in the competition's history.

As part of his prize, Johnson will receive $1,000 and his play will be co-produced by Arena Players and WMAR, which will broadcast it at 7 p.m. Feb. 26 as part of the station's celebration of Black History Month.

Winner of second place and $500 in this year's contest was Darryl Lemont Wharton for "Poet's Dilemma"; third place and $250 went to Tumara Jordan for "Impressions of Ebony."

First-prize winners often participate in the production of their teleplays. In Johnson's case, a spokeswoman for the station said, "Because he's under house arrest, we're not sure how this will work. We'll probably visit him." The playwright, however, said he hopes some type of waiver can be arranged by State Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Bishop Robinson.

Johnson, who served eight years of a 35-year sentence for robbery with a deadly weapon, was diagnosed with AIDS in January. He said he is currently revising a novel, working on a new play and writing thank-you notes to the 60 citizens who petitioned the governor to commute his sentence.

As one of the conditions of his release, he is participating in an AIDS study at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which began treating him with a new medication on Monday. "That has me feeling a bit better," he said.

But Johnson said the biggest improvement in his health was "just leaving [the Maryland State Penitentiary]. It was like lying on the side of the road with an anvil on your chest, and somebody just walked by and removed the thing, and you catch your breath and you start breathing normally again."

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