Amanda Cevallos, a 27-year-old junior at the University of Montana, grew up in Houston with her brother constantly in and out of prison on various nonviolent, drug-related charges. Michael, now 37, was sentenced five different times before he even turned 21, and despite getting married and starting a family 10 years ago, he’s never gone more than three years outside of jail.
“I spent my whole life growing up visiting him in prison,” says Amanda. “I think a parent feels a certain responsibility when her son is locked up, no matter how she tried to raise him, so there wasn’t a weekend when my mom and I didn’t visit…I always felt close to him. He was my big brother.”
After Amanda left Houston to attend college (she transferred to UM from Wyoming’s Sheridan College just over two years ago), she kept in touch with her brother through letters, sometimes exchanging more than two per week. The letters contain details of Michael’s everyday life in prison and long declarations of what he wants to accomplish once he’s released. They also include his poetry, which, when not attached separately, often fill the bulk of the page, with the letter portion squeezed into the margins. Most poems are signed, “The Lost Poet.”
“He has all these ideas and all these amazing, beautiful thoughts,” says Amanda, who has collected her brother’s letters and poems, including those he sent to other family members dating back to 1989, and filed them in a binder. “I realized I wanted his work published. I wanted his voice heard.
” To that end, and despite never having completed a script before, Amanda decided to author a play. When she shared her idea with Michael and asked for help in understanding some of prison culture’s finer details, including the lingo, he suggested compiling a dictionary of terms. Definition of a Dream—which will be performed as part of the Mercury Theatre’s Made in Montana One-Act Play Festival April 14 and 15—is based on Michael’s life and writings. Amanda considers the project co-written.
“It’s his words,” she says. “I only tried to shape them.”
In the opening scene, main character Salinas explains to his cellmate Baker that’s he’s writing a book of “our own language,” adding, “I was thinkin’ maybe some lawyers could use it, some parole officers.” When his cellmate scoffs at the idea, Salinas tosses a bar of soap at him and barks: “Bakes, I’ll fuck you up. Don’t make me throw you in the car wash, you dirty pink toe.” The “car wash” is the area where prisoners shower and “pink toe” is a derogatory reference to a white boy. Both terms are included in Michael’s dictionary.
“I know my brother and I know how he talks and how he is in certain situations,” says Amanda, “but I wanted to make sure it was entirely real. When he saw the first draft he was flattered, and then he wrote me with changes—the exact dimensions of a cell, what’s in there, what he wears, and he graphically wrote me what ‘attempted murder’ really meant.”
The phrase “attempted murder”— mentioned in the first scene—is more inside jargon and refers not to the actual criminal act, but to when prisoners, from inside their cells, try to sexually “gun down” female guards patrolling the halls, masturbatorily speaking.
“He’s honest with me,” says Amanda, “and that helps me understand what it’s like for him. That’s what the play is about—trying to understand what it is like inside there. He’ll be so down sometimes when he writes to me, defeated, like, ‘I’m at a loss for words. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.’ But mostly he’s so positive. He’s the strongest person I’ve ever met in my life.”
For Amanda, Definition of a Dream has become more than just an opportunity to showcase her brother’s writing. While she’s hoping the play will draw interest in Michael’s poems and the “Prisictionary,” she’s also optimistic that the creative process they’ve shared will impact her brother during his remaining time in jail—he’s up for parole in a year—and, even more, once he’s released.
“This can help him have something to say for himself when he gets out this time,” she says. “I want him to come home and be able to call himself an author, maybe the author of a book, a writer who’s had his work on stage, and not ever go back.”
The Made in Montana One-Act Festival, featuring Definition of a Dream, as well as four other plays, begins Friday, April 14, at 7 PM, with shows Saturday, April 15, at 2 and 7 PM. $7. The performances will be held at The Warehouse Mall, 725 W. Alder Street.