PLAY BASED ON THE PERPETRATOR OF A HATE CRIME EARNS FELLOWSHIP FOR HAVERFORD PROFESSOR
After two years of denial, Leo, the protagonist of William di Canzio’s newest play, His Last Night Home, has confessed his guilt in a brutal hate crime against a Haitian immigrant. Now the former policeman finds himself on the other side of the law, sentenced to spend the next 30 years of his life in a federal penitentiary. But before his incarceration begins, he’s permitted to spend one last night in his parents’ Staten Island home, where he’ll face confrontations with his father, a retired police detective; his brother, still an active member of the NYPD; and his former fiancée, an African American woman devastated by his actions.
His Last Night Home, which earned di Canzio a 2006 fellowship in theater from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA), is inspired by the 1997 incident involving the horrific physical and sexual abuse of Haitian security guard Abner Louima by four New York City policemen, chief among them Justin Volpe (on whom Leo is based). Yet di Canzio, a visiting associate professor in the Writing Program, does not attempt to re-create these events: “It’s not a history play. It’s more in the style of American realism or super realism.”
The idea for the play came to him when a psychologist friend of the playwright’s suggested that Louima’s assault, in addition to being racially motivated, was also an example of homophobic hate crime on the part of Volpe. di Canzio was fascinated by the dynamic between Volpe and his father, Robert, a former NYPD detective specializing in art theft and an accomplished painter. “Because the father was an artist and operated in the high-culture world of art—sometimes considered a social milieu with a strong gay presence—could the son have been acting out a subconscious anti-gay bias?” But yet more interesting to the playwright was the fact that Volpe was engaged to a black woman; and during his extensive research, di Canzio discovered that Robert Volpe’s favorite model was an African American woman. (In His Last Night Home, a painting of this model hangs on the set in the living room of Leo’s parents’ house.)
di Canzio’s play also follows a specific trend in contemporary American theater, evident in such classics as Long Day’s Journey into Night and Death of a Salesman. “The model American family is presented as parents with two adult sons,” he says. “And in the best tradition of American theater, the two brothers get drunk during their confrontation.”
di Canzio finished His Last Night Home on July 31, 2005, just one day before the PCA’s deadline for submissions. He had only shown the play to three friends, so news of the fellowship, he says, was “the first concrete professional response to it.” Many theaters across the country have requested the script, and one has already sent the play to an actor considered for the role of Leo’s father.
This is not di Canzio’s first recognition by the PCA. In 2004 he was also awarded a fellowship in theater for his play Hindustan, about the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten, last vicereine of the Raj, and Jawaharlal Nehru, soon to be first Prime Minister of the free nation of India. Hindustan received its first public reading at Haverford in 2001, and was presented as part of the 2002 O’Neill Playwrights Conference.
A graduate of the Yale Drama School and Johns Hopkins University (Ph.D.), di Canzio began writing plays in 1979. “I acted a bit in college, and I was a serious amateur dancer in my 20s,” he says. “I also read a lot of Shakespeare as an undergrad.” He has penned screenplays as well, one of which, Open Heart, was well-received at the Sundance Film Festival screenwriters’ labs.
Currently, di Canzio teaches a course called Community, Race, and Xenophobia in Theater and Film, and will probably begin writing his next play later in the year. He’s taught playwriting at Haverford as well as at Yale, and his most frequent advice to his students is to concentrate on structure. “A play is like an intricate machine, and the writer becomes the wheelwright of that machine,” he says. “You need the right engineering.”
— Brenna McBride