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MLK Day: New Voyages

What does Star Trek: New Voyages have to do with Martin Luther King Day? Turns out it was King himself who persuaded Nichelle Nichols--Lt. Uhura--not to drop out of the original series when she grew frustrated with her limited role on the 1960s TV show. Nichols derided her role as that of "a glorified telephone operator in space," but when she met King at a civil rights protest and learned that King was a big fan of Star Trek, she was also startled to hear him encourage her to stick with the job:

"Don't you know you have the first non-stereotypical role in television?" Nichols recalls King saying. "For the first time the world will see us as we should be seen -- people of quality in the future. You created a role with dignity and beauty and grace and intelligence. You're not just a role model for our children, but for people who don't look like us to see us for the first time as equals."

Nichols stayed with the part and Star Trek is ever with us, at least in some strangely devolved form.

On Sunday, Washington actor and playwright Michael Mack, who played Commander Sirol in Star Trek: The Next Generation, will present a performance of drama and music and a panel discussion featuring civil rights leaders and a member of the cast of the latest Star Trek incarnation, all free at Wesley United Methodist Church at 5312 Connecticut Ave. NW, at 2 p.m. Mack will host the program with excerpts and readings from King's works, followed by an audience discussion of
King's impact and relevance to our times.

I first met Mack when I wrote a series of columns on the Life Stories program he conducted for prison inmates in Montgomery County--teaching prisoners to craft their life experiences into characters and stories. (Full text of one of those columns on the jump.) Mack is a compelling actor and he should put on a fascinating, many-layered tribute today. Check it out.

In the joint, the guys have mastered the art of doing nothing. It's all about time -- making it pass, letting it wash over you, waiting it out, counting it down, until the trial, the hearing, release, sentencing -- whatever the next scene is in the drama of lives that lurch from one tragedy to the next.

Except on Thursday evenings, when Michael Mack -- actor, teacher, screenwriter -- meets 15 young inmates at the Montgomery County Detention Center and pushes them to craft their life experience into characters and stories, to turn their pain and punishment into a compelling and revealing movie.

Mack spent years in TV, acting on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Homicide" and "The Young and the Restless," among other shows. He teaches acting and screenwriting at the Theatre Lab in the District. But something was missing, and Mack filled the gap by going to prison in Potomac, where he works with young murderers and drug dealers, street thugs and burglars, boys ages 15 to 21 serving time with every expectation that they will graduate not to the world of work and responsibility, but to the adult unit down the hall in the same institution.

"Every character in the drama has to come from your lives," Mack tells a new crew of toughs who sit sprawled around the room in studied nonchalance, tucking at the collars of their gray coveralls, folding over their standard-issue white sweat socks. "It's about your humor, your love. Ultimately, it's about possibility."

Over the next eight weeks, inmates enrolled in the "Life Stories" class will create a story together, write a script, rehearse their roles, film their movie and edit it down to something they can hold in their hands and watch on the tube. Those who make it through and get out of the joint can get scholarships to classes at the Theatre Lab, where two graduates of this program are pursuing careers in acting.

But all that's a far way off. What's now is a huge empty canvas stretched on a table, and a pile of markers. "I want words and pictures that mean community to you," Mack says.

"Does it have to be good?" one inmate asks.

"This is all on the positive tip," Mack replies. "Later, we'll do words that destroy community."

Slowly, the blank space becomes a mural, a collage of "PeaceLoveJoyFamily" and an outline of a hopscotch court, hearts and hoops, "Big Money$$$," NFL, a baseball bat, "big cars" and "people that look out for each other."

"I did a tug of war, like a family whatchacallit, reunion," says Billy. "I wouldn't know how to explain it, but I know it mean good though. They're competing against each other but, all's said and done, they still together."

That's community.

Then comes the other side, words that destroy. The mural fills faster this time: "jail," "violence," "shoes," "police," "drugs," "Remy," "snitches," "Whitestar," "guns," "evil thoughts," "Hate Homosexuality Violence Devil."

"I'll take hate and violence," Mack says to the author of that last inscription.

"Homosexuality's not on your list?" the inmate says, one eyebrow cocked.

"You have a right to that, it's your list," the teacher replies. "But it's not on mine. We respect differences."

"But nobody here's homo," the inmate says, quite sure. "Right?"

There is no response.

Mack, like the prison officials and Theatre Lab leaders who worked with him to launch Life Stories, initially worried about getting a bunch of convicts to produce a coherent movie. But he's been thrilled to find that guys who walk into the room all street -- rolling gait, obscure lingo, permanent sneer -- can often be turned into eager, creative students.

These guys get the basics of drama -- conflict and resolution are the scripts of their lives. Their points of reference may not be the same as the teacher's: Explaining the structure of a screenplay, Mack asks if everyone is familiar with the "Indiana Jones" movies. Only two of the 15 inmates has ever seen one of those thrillers. But virtually everyone in the room has seen "Kids," the X-rated celebration of teenage amorality in which the "best scene," as one inmate explains, went like this: "He did his business on her while she all unconscious, and he rolled out." They loved that scene.

"This thuggery is all learned behavior," Mack says. "Take Darien," the lead actor in last semester's production, now released and an avid student on scholarship at Theatre Lab. "He and I, one-on-one, could talk film -- Scorsese, Brando, anyone. And then he steps back into the group, and here comes the dialect and the tough talk."

Mack instantly recognized the reluctance of some inmates to let on that they knew a good deal about film and were hungry to know more. "In certain black neighborhoods, like the one where I grew up, that hunger to learn is just not welcome," Mack says. "I put up with being called 'white boy' until we moved to a white neighborhood. And then I was called 'nigger.' But I had a lot of advantages these guys didn't have. I didn't have family that was setting that example of dealing and thugging."

With time and a certain degree of trust, the young men open up. Within the first hour of the course, a good number of them are competing to frame the story, structuring it as Mack taught them, from setup to confrontation to resolution.

"Boy meets girl, girl meets boy, girl gets pregnant," one inmate starts his proposal.

Immediately, others offer twists: Boy and girl are both unfaithful, he tries to attack her, she takes him on Maury Povich. They're laughing, having a blast, and, whether they know it or not, spelling out their lives.

"She drinks rat poison to get high," says Ghost, who writes vampire books in his room. "She goes to Washington Adventist Hospital, and they draw blood."

"Ghost knows all the crazy hospitals around here," another inmate ribs him.

Several of the students want the girl in the story to be hooked on drugs, but one keeps insisting, "Why does everyone have to be on drugs? You want her to be in jail too?" And they all laugh.

One inmate, Mike, makes the same suggestion at every turn in the emerging plot: "He goes gets a .357."

Finally, after the sixth such proposal, the oldest inmate in the class pipes up: "Why everybody got to die?"

"I challenge them to create an ending with some hope," Mack says. "They're skeptical. They say there has to be another death -- a character has to get what's coming to him. They just rip me to shreds about me wanting some kind of Walt Disney ending. But in the end, they do find a way out of the situation. They do want to see a way out of this kind of life."

"You think we can make something official in here?" Ghost asks. "Something that goes to the big screen? Do you think it's possible that I could go to your classes and go to Broadway?"

Mack tells a story about a guy who in 1991 was working in a video store, a guy who read three books on screenwriting, took a course in Bethesda, entered a screenwriting contest, mailed his script to the producers of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and landed an internship. It was Mack, of course, and the room buzzes with excitement, with possibilities.

And then fantasy time is over. Mack sits down in front of the class and turns to one of the inmates: "Tell us your story, Mike."

(July 7, 2002)

By Marc Fisher |  January 13, 2007; 7:56 AM ET
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