Play about Lucasville riot touches a nerve
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Plain Dealer Reporter
Fourteen years after a prison riot killed a guard and nine inmates, a play
opens tonight that delves into the siege's impact on justice in Ohio.
"Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising" criticizes the lingering
and most contentious issue from the riot: the reliance by prosecutors on
informants' testimony to send five men to death row for murders during the
The stage version opens in Portsmouth, just miles from where guard Robert
Vallandingham was slain at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. The
American Civil Liberties Union will present the play in seven cities this
month, including April 28 at the Pilgrim Congregational United Church of
Christ on West 14th Street in Cleveland.
Critics charge that the play's timing and opening-night location are
insulting to the people of Lucasville who had to live through the 11-day
"A play, that's wonderful," sneered Gary Williams, who wrote the book,
"Siege on Lucasville," about hostage guard Larry Dotson. "A guard and nine
inmates die, and they're going to do a play? This issue has been hashed and
rehashed for 14 years. And why near Lucasville? It's still an open wound."
The writers, peace and prisoner activist Staughton Lynd and Redding, Calif.,
playwright/director Gary Anderson, said they hope to take the script
nationally, where actors in Florida, Idaho and California can put it to the
stage in July or August. They said the same issues that took place in
Ohio -- informant testimony and the death penalty -- resonate anywhere.
The two-hour play begins in the prison during the riots and ends in the
courtrooms, when five men -- Jason Robb, George Skatzes, James Were, Carlos
Sanders and Keith LaMar -- are convicted. In it, the authors accuse a key
informant, Anthony Lavelle, of killing Vallandingham with members of his
Lavelle's testimony eventually convicted Robb, Skatzes, Were and Sanders of
"Do you believe what's going on?" the stage manager asks the audience. "It's
like a courtroom version of Lets Make a Deal.' "
Mark Piepmeier, the prosecutor who oversaw the Lucasville cases, said he is
outraged by the play. He said the inmates' testimonies were corroborated by
State Highway Patrol investigators and by the inmates' own actions. For
example, Skatzes, who served as a prison negotiator, was on tape making
demands and saying that someone would die if the inmates weren't satisfied.
He said he had little choice but to use inmates as witnesses, as they were
the only people there. The guards taken hostage were blindfolded.
"The location and date are not a coincidence. It's offensive," Piepmeier
said. "You can see the agenda. If Staughton Lynd had his way, every prison
would be closed and we would all get along. That sounds nice, but it's not
Lynd and Anderson said they wanted to push the play because the five men are
running out of appeals. Sanders, formerly of Cleveland, could be the first
to die, possibly in two or three years.
"I would like to see people in the other 49 states say, What the heck is
going on in Ohio?' " Anderson said.
The play features 15 cast members from Northeast Ohio. They include Kunta
Kenyatta, a former Lucasville inmate who spent the riot locked in solitary
confinement. He will play LaMar, a man he knew well.
"There was so much tension," he said of the prison before the riot. "There
was so much pressure. There were so many snitch games."
Kenyatta, 38, changed his name from Jerome Lennon. He said playing the role
of a friend brings back the memories of prison, where he spent nearly 16
years. Lessley Harmon plays Were, with whom he served time at the old
Mansfield Reformatory. Harmon, 53, was in prison for more than 11 years,
though not at Lucasville.
He said he knows what went through the minds of the people who became
informants for the State Highway Patrol in the Lucasville riot.
"There are guys in prison who will rat out their mothers if it gets them a
good deal," Harmon said. "That's 99 percent of the prison population. Prison
is hell, and anyone would do anything to get out of hell."
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