SCR Honors Ex-Journalist for New Play : Theater: Mark Lee's two-act "Pirates" is declared winner of second annual California Playwrights Competition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A journalist-turned-playwright who was once expelled from Uganda for reporting on army atrocities there was declared the winner Tuesday of South Coast Repertory's second annual California Playwrights Competition.

"I've never won anything like this before," said 38-year-old Mark Lee, whose two-act "Pirates" won $5,000 and will be presented as part of SCR's California Play Festival (CalFest) this spring. "I liked the play, but I didn't know if anybody else would."

Theater officials named two runners-up--Shem Bitterman for "The Ramp" and Robert Daseler for "An Office Romance"--each of whom will receive $2,500. Their works also will be presented at CalFest, either fully produced or in staged readings. About 300 plays were submitted.

Lee, speaking from his home in Los Angeles, said "Pirates" is a fantasy drama that revolves around a repressed woman academician and a feminist graduate student searching for their identities. Their clash with male faculty members draws inspiration from swashbuckling female pirates who actually sailed the Caribbean for three years during the late 18th Century before being brought to trial in Jamaica.

"I was making my little boy a children's book and I was imagining women pirates when I thought this was a good idea for a play," Lee said. "I just needed to show the contemporary relevance of women in command of their own ship. . . . The war between the sexes is definitely not over just because Time magazine says so."

Lee said he has written about a dozen plays. The first to be produced was "California Dog Fight," about pit bull fighting in the Sacramento delta, which premiered in 1985 at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City. It went on to the Bush Theatre in London, where it was critically acclaimed.

His only other full-length play to be produced was "Rebel Armies Deep Into Chad," about two Western journalists and two African prostitutes who spend a night together. It premiered in 1989 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., and will receive its West Coast premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre on March 3.

"I've had six productions altogether," Lee said, including various workshop presentations of shorter plays at small theaters in Los Angeles and New York. "But I've never had my plays staged in California and I'm quite eager to."

A Minneapolis native who grew up in Santa Barbara, Lee graduated from Yale University in 1973 as a political science major. He said he turned to writing after meeting Robert Penn Warren, the noted poet-essayist-dramatist who taught at Yale. "Becoming friends with him was a turning point in my life," Lee said. "It was through his encouragement that I became a writer."

After college, however, Lee worked in New York City as a taxi driver, a language teacher and, for two years, as a Times Square street hawker "selling little green things that glow in the dark." It wasn't until 1980 that he left for Africa in hopes of covering the Eritrean war in Ethiopia as a free-lancer for the Pacific News Service.

On Lee's arrival in Nairobi, Kenya, an Associated Press editor advised him to go to Uganda instead, where another civil war was raging. "He told me there were two Western journalists there who were both going to be arrested, and when they were, I could take over their strings," Lee recalled. "Which is what I subsequently did for a year and a half."

He covered the Ugandan war for the London Daily Telegraph and filed reports for AP, UPI, Reuters and other news services, he said. He said he was expelled from Uganda in 1982 after reporting on a mass execution in a village where all the men had been forced to dig a burial pit, and then had their throats cut like cattle. His report spurred a protest by Amnesty International, Lee said, "and so I was given the boot."

Returning to Sacramento, he gave up journalism for writing plays because "I basically thought my experiences needed to be expressed through fiction," he said. "And I think plays, more than novels and movies these days, have the ability to debate ideas. That's what makes theater so vital."

Runner-up Bitterman said he, too, was surprised that his play, "The Ramp," had been chosen by SCR because "it is a very private, very difficult work on a very dark subject." The three-character drama is about a Nazi doctor who stands on a ramp at Auschwitz and chooses which Jews will live and which will die.

"I didn't think anybody would be interested at all," said Bitterman, a New York native who moved in 1988 to Los Angeles where another of his plays, "Self Storage," was read last fall at Taper Too as part of the Mark Taper Forum's New Works Festival.

In fact, the SCR prize is one of several awards recently heaped on the 29-year-old playwright. His "Beijing Legends"--about a father-son estrangement during China's Cultural Revolution--won a 1990 grant of $28,000 from the Fund for New American Plays for a production in May at Berkeley's Pacific Jewish Theatre. And his "Ten Below"--about a homeless man who is pulled off the street-- currently is being staged at Kansas City's Unicorn Theatre, after winning its National Playwrights' Competition.

Bitterman first came to wide attention with "Iowa Boys," which was developed at the Taper Too and went on to several East Coast productions. A 1985 graduate of the University of Iowa's playwright program, he also has written "Revolution in America," "Tulsa" and "One Plus One Equals Three," which he adapted for a movie called "Remains" with Bridget Fonda and Michael O'Keefe.

"I began as an actor at Juilliard," Bitterman said in a phone interview from his home. "That's a classic training program, and I kept wondering where are all the new plays? In my naivete, I started writing them."

He said he was drawn to the subject of "The Ramp" after reading a book about Nazi doctors. "At the time, I thought that's all the world needs, another play about Nazis," he recalled. "But as a Jew and as a writer, I've thought about the subject a lot. The play focuses on how people have to have two personalities to behave in a society that promotes genocide."

Daseler's winning play, "An Office Romance," is also a three-character work, but it unfolds on a Southern California patio and revolves around a married woman's affair with a man who works in her office. "I explore the way marriage is changing and how people's expectations for companionship have changed," he said.

The 44-year-old playwright was a runner-up in SCR's 1989 play competition with "Dragon Lady," the first play he ever wrote. It, too, examined a romantic relationship.

While "Dragon Lady" took only a month to write, "An Office Romance" took nearly six, Daseler said. "I became more aware of my liabilities," he quipped from his office at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, where he works as director of public relations.

Daseler, who also submitted another play this year called "Follies of the Oppressor Class," was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., and has worked on several small newspapers in Connecticut, Texas and California. His only previous experience in the theater, he said, was as a drama reviewer.

"I'm remarkably lucky, considering all the people I know who are writing plays and never got anywhere," Daseler said of his back-to-back prizes.

The 300 submissions this year is only about half the number received by SCR last year, when the contest started, but theater officials have said they expected a decline.

The competition is a projection of the Collaboration Laboratory, SCR's playwright program, and is sponsored in part by the American Express Co.

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