A Closer Look: EVEN FLOWERS BLOOM IN HELL, SOMETIMES
Even Flowers Bloom in Hell, Sometimes is an examination of the inmates within a system trying to discover meaning, in the face of isolation and doubt in one's own worth, over a 25 year bid. Before the November 9th reading of the play, playwright Franky D. Gonzalez spoke with fellow Playwrights’ Week 2018 participant Stacey Rose to talk about the play’s background, the prison industrial complex, and his experiences with self-producing his own work.
STACEY ROSE: Franky, this play is everything. I can't wait to see it up in the world. Here are just a few questions I had, though I know a million more will come up when we're in NYC. I look forward to the week and the work.
This piece spoke so directly to my childhood and early adult experience. The humiliation one has to endure to visit a loved one in prison is rarely explored and part of one of the issues with the prison industrial complex that is rarely mentioned in any context, much less in a play. It is a ritual of degradation which you explore beautifully in this play. With that said, is there any one visitation experience or series of experiences that influenced this work?
FRANKY D. GONZALEZ: My interactions with the prison industrial complex lasted through most of my childhood and well into adulthood. Many of the stories and dialogues are from memory or my own time visiting or were given to me by others who wanted to share their experiences with the system. It's a funny thing about visitations because you don't realize in the moment that you are being humiliated and that a passing comment or an emphasis on a certain word or phrase meant a separate thing entirely from what you took it to mean. It's only on reflection later that day, or later in life that you realize the truth. Even Flowers Bloom in Hell, Sometimes is an accumulation of those realizations and insights that you receive with time and distance from the subject.
SR: You deal with time exquisitely in this play, as much as the prison is it's setting, time is this oppressive specter that the prison lives inside of. Was Time's presence something you took particular care to craft? Did you ever feel, stuck, trying to convey how time moves in prison?
FDG: Time, for me, was among the most important things to convey in this play and was probably the easiest thing to write about for me. Everything about my interaction with the prison industrial complex was inextricably linked to the notion of time. How much time did we sit in the waiting room and how much time would we have to see who we needed to see? How much time was the drive and how much overtime would mom have to work to afford the gas or send a little money to the commissary? Or buy stamps? Or have enough for the overpriced snacks in those vending machines? How much earlier would we have to leave to make sure we were the first in line to maximize on the visiting hours? How many minutes per call? What needed to be said, what was important? How much longer till the sentence is served? Everything was measured in time. Those reference points allowed me a lot of approaches to the question of time and prison sentences.
SR: Intelligence, particularly intellectual intelligence vs. emotional intelligence, has been something I've been thinking a lot about lately. This play exhibits ways that inmates become intellectual sponges, who rarely get the chance to transform their existences with the knowledge they've gained. Can you talk a little about this freedom via intellect that your characters Inmate #1 and Inmate #2 seem to have?
FDG: I have an irrational and unproven belief that the greatest thinker in America is an inmate without a formal education in a prison and we'll never be able to benefit from that magnificent mind. The two Inmates are me trying to portray the lost potential we'll never get to know and grow from as a society. They represent the the ultimate act of revolution against a system aimed at total oppression of the body and spirit. They cannot accept the double sentence of physical imprisonment and condemnation of the self to a tragic end. So, they seek to disprove society's condemnation of their existence. They ask questions and talk things out, struggling to understand why things are the way they are but find their answers one way or another. The Inmates are not intellectuals in the academic sense. Were they academics they would have committed suicide almost immediately after realizing that they may actually be Kafka's vermin or Beckett's two eternally waiting tramps. To me, they are romantic heroes. The society has rejected them, condemned them, and sentenced them to a miserable existence. Their response is to pursue knowledge on their terms, first to reclaim their humanity after the system tried to take it from them, then to eventually discover the simple truth that through Love one can overcome even the most heavily guarded prison and ennoble the condemned. They become the flowers that bloom in hell.
SR: What about YOU?! I feel like you thugged it out and got your work into the world on your own terms and sans a big school MFA. It's inspiring and a testament to playwrights being advocates for their own work. Teach us your Jedi ways! How you knew you were a playwright and how you first went about getting your work into the world?
FDG: I knew I wanted to be a playwright after taking a theater class in my junior year of high school. In college I couldn't participate in the mainstage university productions because I worked evening shifts at a call center to help pay for rent and food (loans didn't cover everything). To get experience, I self-produced my own shows on whatever savings I had or whomever I could get to invest in my scripts. Because I took the self-producing track, I learned to write only what I was willing to risk everything on and needed to be sure every script I produced was one I could get behind and believe in so as to justify the cost of things like programs, rental, insurance, and paying the actors. This was probably the most valuable thing to happen to me as a playwright. Self-production forced me to make decisions about how I invest in theater and playwriting. It made my writing better out of necessity.
Of course getting to a place where I was comfortable with submitting to organizations like The Lark took some time. To me, staying local and producing a show here and there was the highest I could go. I didn't have an MFA, nor even a BFA, much less from a well-known institution with influence. If it weren't for my mother and wife pushing me to at least attempt submitting. My mother reminded me specifically that if the men I grew up visiting in prison could remain hopeful then I could at least have some faith that my scripts would be chosen. I did what I was told and am thankful everyday for my wife and mother. Everything began to fall into place. Like circumstance after circumstance lined up. I met Doug Wright who encouraged me to join the Dramatists Guild and use the resource guide. Opportunities started to come, and my scripts began getting known. I met people who guided me and took an interest in my work. All the credit for any success I have is owed to the women of my life. I would not be where I am if it were not for them pushing me to push my work forward. I may have written it, but they picked me up and forced me to try to get others to see it.
SR: What was the first play you ever read? What did you think of it?
FDG: First plays I read in earnest were Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Beckett's Waiting For Godot, and Lorca's Blood Wedding. I read all three in about a week's time and I credit all three with starting me on my journey as a playwright. They wrote what I had always wanted to write.
SR: Playwriting, at least for me, is in part wanting to see myself on stage. I've always been too body conscious to - hence a play with four women my size, naked on stage for 50 minutes. Have you ever acted, if so, what show? What role? If not, what role would you like to play if you could?
FDG: I've acted in a few plays in high school. My first role was as Oberon and Theseus in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. If I could play any role it would be King Lear and Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape whose roles I would only take when I reach the appropriate age and even then, only to close out my career in theater.
SR: What one thing that you used to be able to get in Queens, that you can't any longer, and miss?
FDG: The food!! There's no food like what you can get in Queens. Try to find a good bagel outside of the Northeast. You can't do it! Jamaican patties? Good empanadas? A decent Colombian or Dominican joint to sit down and get fat on the aroma? Can't happen. I only know that when I'm back in New York, all diet bets are off. I'm eating, haha.