Peter Lawson Jones

Actor • Voice-Over Artist • Playwright

The Bloodless Jungle

Written by: Peter Lawson Jones

 

Synopsis:

State Senator Ethan St. John is a rising star in the political world who is being courted by the President and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to challenge a long-term incumbent for a critical seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Ethan agrees to undertake the run but must vest control of the campaign in the hands of H. Henderson Hill, a nationally renowned “win-at-any-cost” political consultant.  Ethan is ahead in the polls when, J.J. Stiles, his best friend from high school, who had previously served time for sexual assault, is arrested upon suspicion of having committed another rape.  Ethan soon faces mounting pressure from both the media and Hill, with whom Ethan continually engages in philosophical battles about campaign strategy, to distance himself from J.J., but Ethan is convinced that his friend is innocent.  Complicating matters is a long-held secret that Sydney, Ethan’s wife, reveals to him.  He is faced with a daunting choice: does he abandon J.J. and focus on winning the election, or does he jeopardize the campaign by supporting his friend.  The play ultimately centers around the decision Ethan makes and its consequences.

“The Bloodless Jungle” is a two-act drama with a diverse cast: six men and two women; five African-American, two European-American and one Latino actor(s).

 

Script History:

"The Bloodless Jungle" successfully premiered September 2016 at Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  TBJ has also received staged readings in Washington, D.C. (produced by The Essential Theatre as part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts 2016 Page to Stage New Play Festival), at the Dallas Convention Center (as part of the Black Academy for Arts and Letters Playwright's Spotlight Series) and in Harlem (co-produced by Shades of Truth Theatre and the Voza Rivers/New Heritage Theatre Group).  The drama will receive its second full production at Ensemble Theatre August 17-27 and yet another staged reading that month as part of the 2017 National Black Theatre Festival Garland Thompson, Sr. Readers' Theatre of New Works.

 

Excerpt:

SCENE 3

(That evening at the campaign office. ETHAN enters, turns on the light and finds HENDERSON sitting there.)

 

ETHAN

(Surprised.)

Henderson.

 

HENDERSON

What are we going to do, Mr. St. John? I’ve tried to reason with you about J.J., but, apparently, to no avail. I asked Cy to speak with you about him, but, again, I sense, without success.

 

ETHAN

Failing to convince me to do something I’m not yet— for good reason— prepared to do. That’s a pretty tough way to measure success.

 

HENDERSON

Not yet prepared to do?

(Pause.)

Thirty years ago when I was married to my first wife, we decided to take a trip across the country. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we were free of obligations and had plenty of time. So, we drove. It took us nearly a week. Anyway, we had just passed Reno, Nevada, travelling west on Interstate 80 when we saw a sign that said Last Chance Casino. Well, as it turned out, it was the last place you could gamble before you crossed the state line into California, where gambling was illegal. It was bet now or forever— well, at least until you headed back East— hold your chips. That’s where this campaign is now. Last Chance Casino. There’s no other way to put it. We’ve just about run out of time.

(Changing tone.)

Ethan, I understand J.J.’s your friend, but the plain truth is that ever since the two of you graduated from high school, he’s been drawing trouble like shit draws flies.

 

ETHAN

You know I never got that.

 

HENDERSON

Got what?

 

ETHAN

Why flies would ever be drawn to a pile of shit. I mean, how fucked up do you olfactory glands have to be to think that crap smells good. Now, on the other hand, the bee and its attraction to honey, that makes sense.

 

HENDERSON

Well, it’s quite comforting to see that you know the difference between flies and bees, but the point I’m trying to—

 

ETHAN

Oh, I know the point you’re trying to make— that at the Saturday morning press conference I need to unambiguously condemn J.J. in the clearest of terms and then hurl what remains of his carcass to a public that has been made rabid by a ratings-driven media that has only a passing interest in the real issues that daily confront real people. And, whatever the mainstream press doesn’t devour, we’ll leave for the bile-spewing sycophants of the blogosphere, hiding behind pseudonyms and anonymity, to pick over.

 

HENDERSON

How sanctimonious of you. I always suspected you took the Saint part of your last name a bit too seriously.

 

ETHAN

(Chuckling ironically.)

This has nothing to do with any sense of moral superiority on my part, but it is all about conducting this campaign, where it’s my name that will appear on the ballot, in a way that I’ll be able to sleep at night when it’s over. Even in the midst of the shit that passes for political contests these days, there’s still something to be said for honor.

 

HENDERSON

(Pausing to recalibrate.)

You may very well be right. The media does crave a nasty dustup because it builds readership, and a larger readership means more advertising dollars. Sure, conflict— racial, religious, sexual, political— sells. Always has, always will. Blame it on human nature. And the higher the level of the combatants, the more it sells. No one really gives a fuck if the dogcatcher and dog warden are feuding. And, sure, for the most part political bloggers are witless, clueless, wannabe shot callers, with far too much time on their hands, driven half-mad because no one they actually know gives a damn what they think. So, congratulations. You’re right… but it doesn’t matter. Because to get into a position where your opinion does mean a damn, where you can effect “real change,” you have to win the hearts and minds of the ratings-obsessed media, empty-headed bloggers and that vulterous crowd… the voters… or, failing that, to, at the very least, turn the media, the blogosphere and the electorate against your opponent.

 

ETHAN

And to do that…to secure my place at the grown-ups table… all I have to do is abandon a friend, who has paid his debt to society and rehabilitated himself… a friend I believe is innocent.

 

HENDERSON

You believe? You’re willing to tie your political future, a seat in Congress to the fate of an already previously convicted rapist? Because you believe?

 

ETHAN

Well, what do any of us really have other than our beliefs?

 

HENDERSON

(Shaking his head slightly.)

Did I misread you? I thought you truly wanted to make a difference in the country, the world, at the highest level. Congress, Secretary of State, U.S. Supreme Court, hell, President.

(Pause.)

Did you really think you could get elected to Congress just because you’re handsome, articulate, highly ethical with a great resumé. There are literally thousands of nice, smart, good-looking people with impressive credentials. No, you don’t get to the halls of Congress— unless you’re taking a bus to sightsee— without stepping over… and many times on… the body of some poor, innocent prostrate soul. Maybe you just aren’t hungry enough, not willing to sacrifice a few inconsequential minnows to land the big fish. Maybe you really just don’t want it.

 

ETHAN

If those minnows are real, live, thinking, feeling innocent human beings like J.J., then maybe not.

 

HENDERSON

Well, you better figure it out, and soon. Every day you hesitate, we drop another point in the polls. We’re fast approaching a steep cliff. The DCCC… the President… can’t afford to throw good money after bad.

 

(ETHAN and HENDERSON stare at each other.)

 

You know I was interviewed on a network nightly news show a few years back, and the show’s host asked me to describe politics. I told her that it was like the jungle, you just never see the blood. Like it or not you’re in the jungle Ethan. Make sure that hard to see blood on the ground isn’t yours.

 

ETHAN

One thing’s for certain. I’m sure it won’t be yours.

 

HENDERSON

So you do understand me.

 

ETHAN

Always have.

 

(HENDERSON exits. ETHAN ponders, and then exits. As lights fade on the campaign office, they rise on a visitation room in the county jail. The scene is lit so that the only objects that can be seen are two chairs separated by a table. ETHAN enters the scene and takes the stage right chair. He looks around, down, taps his fingers on the table. A male voice can be heard saying, “Your visitor is here.” J.J. enters from stage left. He stops in his tracks upon seeing ETHAN and drops his head.)

 

ETHAN

(Gets up from the chair, crosses to J.J. and hugs him.)

My man. You hangin’ in there.

 

J.J.

Yeah.

(Pause.)

You shouldn’t have come. I didn’t want you to see me when I was locked up before, and I definitely didn’t want you to visit now. If one of the guards talks, if someone saw you come in—

 

ETHAN

It’s alright, J.J. The Warden’s a friend, and he assures me that all of the guards are good Democrats.

(Smiles.)

 

J.J.

I’m not joking, E. We get the paper in here. You think I don’t know what they’re sayin’? The stories are more about us being high school classmates, about you than they are about me. That’s what’s got me sick, man. It’s bad enough being back in lock up, especially for something I didn’t even do, but if my shit fucks up your campaign—

 

ETHAN

(Helping J.J. to his seat and then taking his own.)

J.J., just relax. We’re gonna get you outta this, and we’re going to win the election. First things first. They treating you okay?

 

J.J.

About as well as you can expect here in jail. They pretty much leave me alone.

 

ETHAN

We’ve got to get you out of here. Now, I know your bail has been set at $500,000. Between Sydney, me and a few friends, I think we can come up with most of it.

 

J.J.

No.

 

 

ETHAN

It’s not a problem. If you’re worried about the paper finding out, we can handle it discreetly.

 

J.J.

No. If you come up with the money, I’m going to refuse to accept it, and I’m going to tell my attorney to refuse it as well.

 

ETHAN

Come on. That makes no sense. You need to be out of jail, if only to help with your own defense.

 

J.J.

What defense? My girlfriend shows up at the hospital, badly beaten with my sperm inside her. Now, whoever hit her was smart enough not to have used his bare hands or to have raped her with no condom on. But she says I did it because she wanted to break up and work things out with her husband. So, who’s the jury gonna believe? A sweet, articulate young woman with a college degree and good job or a former drug addict who’s already done a bid for rape? Care to bet? You know, I shoulda listened to you.

 

ETHAN

About what?

 

J.J.

You told me to be careful dating a young woman with two kids who was temporarily separated from her husband and childhood sweetheart. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was the one who did it, but he’s going to get away with it. She won’t turn on him.

 

ETHAN

That’s crazy. She’s not going to stay with someone who beat her bad enough to send her to the hospital. She sounds like a smart girl. She’ll come forward with the truth. Don’t lose faith.

 

J.J.

E, she and I broke up several times over the past few years. She would go back to him for a while and then she’d return to me. I should’ve let her go… but, man, I was in love. Even if she wanted to tell the truth, she’s too scared now. She’s taken it too far. She’s got no choice but to play out her hand, whatever that means for me.

 

ETHAN

Snap out of it, J.J. We can get this charge dismissed. Let me talk with your lawyer. At least let me help with your attorney’s fees.

 

J.J.

She’s a public defender. So, her bill is paid.

 

ETHAN

Look. I know some great defense lawyers who, at the very least, could assist her.

 

J.J.

No! You’ve done enough for me over the years. You helped me find a job and get back on my feet when I was released. You’ve answered the phone every time I called and helped keep me sober when the pressure was getting to me. I simply can’t accept anything more from you, my friend.

(Pause.)

You know, my mom comes to see me every visitation day. She’s only fifty-five, but she looks so much older, and I’ve done that to her. By wasting my chance to go to college, with my drug addictions, my imprisonment and now this. I’ve shamed her before our family, our neighbors, her co-workers. I see it in every new wrinkle on her face, every gray hair, her stooped shoulders.

(Beat.)

 I’ve done enough damage, E, to my mom, my family, to you. Just go tell that paper that I deserve whatever’s coming my way and go on and win the election. That’s what you can do for me. That’s what’ll make me feel better.

 

ETHAN

And that’s exactly what I would do… if I didn’t believe you were innocent. J.J. What kind of man would I be if I just casually turn my back on you? Of all people you know how competitive I am. Hell, yes, I want to be Congressman, but there’s gotta be a way to do it without betraying my friends.

 

J.J.

You really haven’t changed. Back in high school you would’ve been voted the player least likely to be flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.

 

ETHAN

Come on now. When I was playing defensive back, I’d grab a receiver’s shirt from time to time to keep ‘em from getting behind me.

 

J.J.

(Pause.)

You know, you never asked me if I did it.

 

ETHAN

Did what?

 

J.J.

If I committed that rape fifteen years ago.

 

ETHAN

I don’t need to know whether or not—

 

J.J.

But I need you to know the truth.

ETHAN

(Beat.)

 Okay.

 

J.J.

I shoulda gone to college. I don’t know if you ever noticed it, but deep down, I didn’t have much self-confidence. I put on a brave front. Told a lot of jokes so no one would figure me out, but I was scared. Too much pressure being the first in my entire family to head off to school. So instead I took the escape route and started hanging out with the neighborhood dope boys. We sold drugs, we stole drugs, but most of all we just used them. Weed, coke, crack, smack. We didn’t give a shit. As long as it got us high.

(Beat.)

Well, there was this real fine young girl, couldn’t have been twenty we used to always see around the neighborhood. One of the guys— the pretty boy of our gang— bet us he could get her high and fuck her, and… he did. But, being the generous brother that he was, he invited us all to come over and have a little taste ourselves. So, we headed over to his place. She was just lying there, half asleep, half drugged out.

(Becoming more and more emotional.)

When she saw the four of us in the room, she tried to grab her clothes, but pretty boy pushed her back down on the bed and told her to relax and just enjoy the ride. I could see the fear in her eyes, but she fought as hard as she could to keep the first guy off of her. With each new guy she struggled less and less. By the time it came to me, she barely moved, her eyes were vacant, just staring dead ahead. I could’ve tried to stop them. I, at least, could’ve left. But I was just a sorry ass no-name drug addict, high as a kite, with no real future and whose only chance to get with a girl that beautiful was right then and there. So, I took my turn.

(Beat.)

Then, I went home and just waited, actually looking forward to that knock on the door that was bound to come. Sure enough, two days later the police showed up. Arrested me right in front of my mom and dad. I could’ve pled to a lesser charge, but I knew I didn’t deserve that. When I got to prison, I would write the girl every week, then every month to apologize for what I did. I would give the letters to my family, my attorney, to anybody willing to deliver them to her.

 

ETHAN

Did you ever hear from her?

 

J.J.

No, and who could blame her? I didn’t need to apologize. I needed to have been a man and have stopped that train from ever running in the first place. Anyway, from what I understand, her family and her moved away a few years later. Who could blame them.  Why stick around those memories.

 

ETHAN

J.J., that was fifteen years ago. As fucked up as it was, there’s nothing more you can do but live life the best you can from here on out. I know that you’ve been going around town talking to young brothers to keep them from repeating your mistakes. You’ve paid your debt to society. Letting yourself rot away in prison for a crime you didn’t commit won’t erase the past, but it will keep all the good you could do in the future from even happening.

 

J.J.

(Smiling ever so slightly.)

You can’t help it, can you, E? Your glass is always half full. Please, just do what I asked. Wash your hands of me. Win the election. Leave me to deal with this.

(Heading towards the door from which he entered as ETHAN sits there drained of energy. J.J. stops just before he reaches the door.)

One more thing. I know it was you who used to deliver those care packages to me at prison. I mean, who but your best friend, knows to bring you your favorite, hard-to-find candy bar with the latest copy of Sports Illustrated. Thank you for that. I love you, man.

 

ETHAN

Love you, too, J.J.

 

J.J.

Guard.

 

(He exits as ETHAN sits silently for a few moments and then exits. The spotlight on the scene fades.)

 

 

Peter Lawson Jones © 2013

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