CONGRATULATIONS, JOE: A New Play About For-Profit Prisons

Lee Irby is a playwright based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Follow Lee on his Kickstarter page to learn more about his work.

Absurdist theatre can reflect ugly truths about our existence without resorting to maudlin or overused themes. Done properly, such plays often surprise or even stun audiences by their fresh and innovative displays of a twisted reality. But absurdist works, of course, require absurdity, and for-profit prisons offer an ample supply of this commodity.

For the past twenty years, I have observed the prison-industrial complex take root in our land. As a journalist in Key West, I covered the opening of the new $35 million Monroe County Jail, which promised the citizens of the lower Keys a pathway to riches—overcrowded jails in Dade and Broward would send their inmates down, and we’d clean up on the per diem charges.

This same tableau was played out in dozens of communities across the country, even as more pressing infrastructure needs were ignored. But what could we do about it?

What came naturally to me was satire. My good friend from college had spurned the so-called “real world” to work odd jobs—tree cutting, bartending—because he had no desire to buckle under to The Man. He lived at home until he was well into his 30s, but then one day he landed a “real” job: teaching at a jail (he still does today). The trajectory of this story stayed with me for years, and I kept ruminating on what it means.

What emerged was CONGRATULATIONS, JOE, a three-act play that mocks the for-profit prison system. Each act consists of a party for Joe. First, as he lands a job at The Prison, then as he’s promoted, and finally as he is promoted to warden. Along the way Joe picks up an agent, who has big plans for Joe’s career, and a girlfriend, who may or may not be out for Joe’s job.

As Joe ascends the ranks of the prison system, he becomes increasingly unhinged and paranoid. He contracts imaginary medical problems and assumes he’s being targeted. The climax is his promotion to become a warden of a CIA-run “black box” facility in Eastern Europe. Joe is conflicted because he’d vowed never to work at The Prison, but now he’s in too deep.

CONGRATULATIONS, JOE will be premiered this summer by A Simple Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

Click here to watch a video with more details from the playwright.

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