Matter of Intent by Gary Earl Ross

This Play is the copyright of the Author and must NOT be Performed without the Author's PRIOR consent

Act One

Scene 1

(Darkness. Heard in darkness, TEMPLE SCOTT’s voice is that of a
mature woman who speaks quietly, with calm authority.)


TEMPLE
The act of taking a life is seldom simple. People kill for every
imaginable reason. Love, hate, greed, jealousy, self-defense, even
pleasure. They kill in a rage or a drunken stupor or cold blood, and
sometimes for reasons our imaginations can’t begin to understand.
Why somebody kills is as important as the act itself. The law makes
distinctions based on context and intent. The barroom brawl that
leaves a body on the floor might be manslaughter or justifiable
homicide. It is not the same as sugaring your husband’s coffee with
rat poison. In cases of capital murder, the prosecution must show
intent. The defense must disprove what the average juror already
believes in his heart—that the accused knew his actions would result
in death and that, having had time to consider this certainty, he
proceeded anyway. In other words, he pulled a trigger or jammed a
knife under a rib cage because the death of the victim was what
he—or she—most desired. Murder, you see, is always a matter of
intent.

(After a brief silence comes the second voice. MAE LOU McKITCHEN’s
voice is slow, caught somewhere between womanhood and girlhood. She is
singing tearfully, slowly, with difficulty.)


MAE LOU
Jesus loves me, this I know, ‘cause the Bible tells me so. Little
ones to him belong. They are weak and he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves
me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

(Lights rise. Crying as she sings, MAE LOU, in a maid’s uniform, is
kneeling beside a woman’s body, back toward the audience, blood
beneath her. MAE LOU lifts a bloody knife. Blackout)


Scene 2

The Scott/Nichols Living Room. Evening.

(Lights up. Upstage, a table and three chairs. Period music plays.

BOBBI NICHOLS enters, in an apron, carrying plates, flatware, cloth
napkins. She sets the table, then exits. TEMPLE SCOTT enters from the
opposite side and sets her briefcase on the floor. The music begins to
fade, and she notices the table.)

TEMPLE
Bobbi, I’m home. Are we . . . Aw, damn! It’s Thursday. She knows I
like to watch The Untouchables on Thursday.

(BOBBI enters with breadbasket , pitcher, glasses.)

BOBBI
Hey, Temple.
(Arranging bread, pitcher, and glasses on the table.)

TEMPLE
Hi. We having company for dinner?

BOBBI
Yes. Somebody from school.

TEMPLE
Not Dr. Porter, I hope. I can’t take another evening with that man.

BOBBI
Oh, hush. Dr. Porter’s not all that bad.

TEMPLE
He’s stiffer than a dead cat. Even with two glasses of wine in him
he makes you want to dig a hole in the back yard.

BOBBI
He’s got a lot on his shoulders, this being his first year as vice
principal in a new town. He hasn’t made a lot of friends yet.

TEMPLE
He’s made the one he wants.

BOBBI
What do you mean?

TEMPLE
He’s been here for dinner twice, and I don’t think he would have
said more than two words at a time to me if I set his tie on fire. All
he could do was make eyes at you. Mouth hanging all open like a puppy
too dumb to see he’s fixing to get kicked. Has he said anything? Has
he asked you out yet?

BOBBI
No. He’d never try to date one of the teachers, not while she works
in the same school. He’s very proper.

TEMPLE
Properly miserable.

BOBBI
Yes. Sometimes I feel sorry for him.

TEMPLE
Don’t let pity put you in an embarrassing spot. Girl, you lay
another cloth napkin in front of him and that Negro’s liable get
down on one knee and ask you to transfer to another school.

BOBBI
It’s not Dr. Porter.

TEMPLE
That’s a relief. So, who is it? You didn’t put out any wine. Wait.
It’s Marcus, isn’t it? The Hunters are going out and he’s coming
upstairs to eat with us.
(Sits in one of the chairs.)

BOBBI
Nope. He’s got homework, and living downstairs from his sixth grade
teacher means he can’t claim the dog they never had ate it.

TEMPLE
One of the white teachers then? Union business?
(Pours lemonade, drinks.)

BOBBI
It’s Thomas, the new custodian.

TEMPLE
Thomas? I’m supposed to give up The Untouchables so you can
entertain the janitor?

BOBBI
It’s not me he’s coming to see.

TEMPLE
Oh. That means Thomas is in trouble and you want me to help. Bobbi, I
can’t keep giving free legal assistance. I don’t make enough as it
is. I don’t mind doing things for your church, and I never charge
the Hunters because Mr. Hunter worked in the mill with Glenn.

BOBBI
And they charge us next to nothing for this flat.

TEMPLE
But there is my office rent. If I didn’t have you to share expenses,
I couldn’t buy food. Now, I’ve got to charge somebody for my
services.

BOBBI
It won’t come to services. I’m not trying to scare up a new
client.

TEMPLE
A new client would be fine, as long as it’s a paying client.

BOBBI
I didn’t know Thomas’s last name until today.

TEMPLE
What’s that got to do with anything?
(Takes another drink.)

BOBBI
It’s McKitchen.

TEMPLE
(almost spitting)
McKitch—oh my God! As in Mae Lou McKitchen?

BOBBI
He’s her brother. He came in to sweep out my room at the end of the
day. I said I hadn’t seen him all week and he started crying,
Temple. Crying.

TEMPLE
So you invited him to dinner?

BOBBI
I just had to. A good meal. Happy music. I thought it might make him
feel better. He’s a nice boy, kind of innocent, and he’s really
scared for his sister. I thought maybe you could talk to him, explain
the case to him.

TEMPLE
You want me to explain that his sister could get the electric chair?

BOBBI
I think he knows that. I was hoping you could tell him how the court
system works.

TEMPLE
His sister is colored. The victim was white. The judge’ll be white
and so will most or all of the jury. How the court system works is,
there’s a good chance she’ll get the electric chair.

(Doorbell rings.)

BOBBI
That must be him. Please talk to him, Temple. Please? And try not to
scare him.

TEMPLE
Oh, all right. All right. I’ll try not to scare him but I won’t
give him any false hope. That wouldn’t be fair.

BOBBI
I better go down and let him in.
(Exits where TEMPLE entered as TEMPLE drinks.)

TEMPLE
Could’ve used that wine.

(Offstage, footsteps and voices. BOBBI gestures THOMAS McKITCHEN into
the room. Simply dressed, he is barely in his twenties. His manner is
deferential, his face wide-eyed and innocent.)


BOBBI
Temple, this is Thomas. Thomas, this is my roommate, Temple Scott.

TEMPLE
(Shaking his hand.)
Pleased to meet you, Thomas.

THOMAS
Nice to meet you, Miz Scott.

BOBBI
Thomas, why don’t you have a seat and let me see how the pork chops
are doing.

THOMAS
Pork chops? I love me some pork chops, Miz Nichols.

BOBBI
I’m glad to hear that. Now you just sit there and talk to Temple and
I’ll be back in a few minutes.

(THOMAS sits. TEMPLE resumes her own seat and studies him. He smiles
at her and says nothing, eyes wandering about the room.)

TEMPLE
Would you like some lemonade?

THOMAS
No thank you, ma’am.

TEMPLE
Bobbi—Miss Nichols—tells me you’re the new school custodian.

THOMAS
Assistant custodian, yes, ma’am.

TEMPLE
You seem a little young for such an important job.

THOMAS
One of the deacons from church took me down to City Hall to ‘ply.

TEMPLE
Do you like your job?

THOMAS
It’s okay. Duane, the head custodian, he pretty nice to me. He show
me where all the supplies is and how to empty the dust bag on the
‘raser cleanin’ machine. He eat lunch with me and talk to me like
a man. Not like Dr. Porter.

TEMPLE
What does Dr. Porter do?

THOMAS
Tell me don’t talk to the chirren. Plunge the toilets. Take out the
lunch room garbage soon as the kids done. Don’t touch the boiler
‘cause that’s Duane’s job. He get mad sometime and call me
stupid. Why he do that?

TEMPLE
Maybe he doesn’t know any better. Or maybe he just needs to make
more friends.

THOMAS
That ain’t no way to make friends.

TEMPLE
No, it’s not. You’re not from Buffalo, are you?

THOMAS
No, ma’am. South Ca’lina.

TEMPLE
What brings you up north?

THOMAS
Uncle Lucky died.

TEMPLE
Uncle Lucky?

THOMAS
He was Mama’s brother. He raise me and my sister when Mama died. He
drownded. Fishin’. We come here ‘cause Aunt Rose was here.

TEMPLE
Who’s Aunt Rose?

THOMAS
Mama and Uncle Lucky’s cousin. First we live with her, but then she
got too sickly. She took us to her church and the Sparkses help us get
jobs and fount us places to stay.

TEMPLE
Where’s your Aunt Rose now?

THOMAS
She passed, ‘bout four months ago.

TEMPLE
I’m sorry . . . So now it’s just you and your sister.

THOMAS
Yes, ma’am.

TEMPLE
Which one of you is older?

THOMAS
Me, by a year.

TEMPLE
Where do you live, Thomas?

THOMAS
Oh, I got me a room at the YMCA on Ferry Street.

TEMPLE
Walking distance to the school, eh?

THOMAS
Yep.

TEMPLE
And where does your sister live?

THOMAS
With the Wayborns, the white folks . . . or she did till she got in
trouble.

TEMPLE
Tell me about it.

THOMAS
They say she kilt Miz Wayborn. Kilt her with a knife. She in jail now.

(Wiping eyes.)
Mae Lou ain’t kill nobody. She couldn’ta.

TEMPLE
Why do you say that?

THOMAS
Uncle Lucky use to talk a lot ‘bout people’s nature, ‘bout how
they like animals. A snake be a snake, no matter what. A dog be a dog.
People the same way. They is what they is and can’t be no different.
Like Mama. Uncle Lucky say Mama love to drink, even when she was a
girl and she go up the road to the juke house. Drinkin’ was her
nature. Uncle Lucky was strict. He tried to make sure neither one of
us end up goin’ to hell like Mama.

TEMPLE
Oh . . . Okay. So tell me about Mae Lou?

THOMAS
She a lot like me. Quiet. Do her chores and try to stay out folks’
way. She like to feed birds and sing ‘bout Jesus and go to the
picture show. She got a pretty smile.

TEMPLE
She sounds like a sweet girl.

THOMAS
And she can cook too. Uncle Lucky teach us both but she do it
better’n me. Make somebody a fine wife someday.
(Shakes his head, face contorting.)
She ain’t never hurt nothin’. Ain’t her nature.

TEMPLE
This must be very hard for you.

THOMAS
Yes, ma’am. She all I got.

TEMPLE
Now, the court has assigned defense counsel.

THOMAS
That’s her lawyer, right?

TEMPLE
Yes. What’s her lawyer’s name?

THOMAS
Mr. Burke.

TEMPLE
Has Mr. Burke talked to you?

THOMAS
No, ma’am. Ain’t never met him. Down at the jail they say I need
to talk to him ‘fore I can see Mae Lou but I don’t know how to
find him.

TEMPLE
Did Miss Nichols explain that I’m an attorney, a lawyer?

(THOMAS nods.)

TEMPLE
I’ll call Mr. Burke tomorrow and make sure you can get in to see
your sister.

THOMAS
Thank you, Miz Scott.

TEMPLE
You’re welcome. Now, Miss Nichols wanted you to talk to me in case
you had some questions about what’s happening.

THOMAS
When you think they’ll let Mae Lou out? Once they see killing
ain’t her nature, they got to let her go. Right?

TEMPLE
I’m sorry. I’m afraid it’s not quite that easy.

(BOBBI enters, wiping her hands on her apron.)

BOBBI
Everything will be ready in a couple minutes.

TEMPLE
Thomas, would you excuse me a minute?

THOMAS
Yes, ma’am.

(TEMPLE rises and leads BOBBI downstage)

TEMPLE
Is it me, or is this boy retarded? And why do his hands twitch so
much?

BOBBI
Maybe he’s a little slow but he works hard and he’s nice. Has he
been talking?

TEMPLE
Yes. He thinks they’ll let her out once they realize she’s too
sweet to commit murder.

BOBBI
Oh, no.

TEMPLE
You ever meet his sister?

BOBBI
No, why?

TEMPLE
The paper said she was dull, had a vacant stare. Maybe being slow runs
in the family.

BOBBI
What if it does?

TEMPLE
She may not be competent to stand trial.

BOBBI
Wouldn’t that be obvious? Wouldn’t the court see that and put her
in the state school?

TEMPLE
No, Bobbi. She’s colored. She’s supposed to be dumber than the
white folks handling her case.
(Pause.)
Why don’t you go see to the food and let me talk to Thomas a little
more.

BOBBI
All right.

(Exits, patting THOMAS’s shoulder.)

(TEMPLE looks at THOMAS for a moment. Then she crosses to her
briefcase, removes a yellow legal pad and a pen, and returns to her
seat.)


TEMPLE
Thomas, I want to help you, you and your sister. But first you have to
tell me all you can about her—and about Uncle Lucky, Aunt Rose, the
Wayborns. If I’m going to help, I need to know everything.

[End of Extract]

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