Insights of a Sightless Playwright


When blind men start carrying 9mm handguns, you know L.A. has taken a real nasty turn.

That's what playwright Lynn Manning feared several years ago when he tried to stop a blind friend from buying a gun.

He remembers making the argument that "it's bad enough when somebody who can see packs a piece on the street." And Manning should know.

In 1978, at the age of 23, he was shot in a Hollywood bar by a deranged man he had argued with earlier in the evening. The blast robbed Manning of his sight. But he's lucky he wasn't killed: A bullet remains lodged in the right side of his brain.

His blind friend still bought the gun. But it gave Manning the inspiration for his first short play, "Shoot," about a city caught in a cycle of violence and a gun-toting blind man who doesn't want to be messed with anymore.

Looking at him, you wouldn't think Manning would be afraid to walk the streets around his home at 4th and Western. Tall and well built, the playwright is also an actor and a poet . . . and the Blind Light-Heavyweight Judo Champion of the world. Last week, he won the silver medal at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona.

Not surprisingly, Manning's plays grapple with themes of strength and vulnerability. His characters explore what the line is between protecting oneself and endangering others.

"Shoot" has been performed in theaters around L.A. as well as in hospital wards for gunshot victims. It opens with a radio announcer describing a brutal weekend in which 18 people have been killed. This is a place where many carry guns . . . "something that's gonna put the fear of God in (an attacker's) heart and the fear of lead in his ass."

Manning plays the part of a blind man named Donny, who buys a handgun from a local pawnshop and isn't afraid to use it, shooting in the air when a muttering vagrant threatens his friend. As the gun explodes, the blind man is able to make his presence felt for the first time.

Yeah, the next punk that (messes) with this blind man better be able to outrun a bullet; and do it without touchin' the ground. 'Cause if I hear him, I can hit him.

It is not unusual that a blind man would want a gun, Manning says. Disabled people have known for a long time how dangerous the city is because "the criminal preys on those they think are weak."

In his sparsely furnished apartment, an exercise bike dominates a room where white judo jackets hang drying. Wearing red sweat pants, Manning constantly stretches on the floor as he talks, joking that he wears all the red he wants now that the gang truce is on. For a man who can't see, the wrong color choice in the morning has been a deadly concern.

Even with the truce between the Bloods and Crips, Manning says he doesn't feel that much safer in the city. "With the proliferation of guns, whoever values life the least becomes the cock of the walk," he says.

Born in Fresno, Manning grew up in South-Central foster homes until he was placed in the now-closed McCobb Homes for Boys in the Wilshire area. When he was shot by a man he hadn't seen before and "someone I haven't been able to see since," he was a student at L.A. City College, studying architecture. He wanted to be an artist.

That dream was dashed when he lost his sight. Manning took up judo as a way to keep in shape. Writing became a refuge, "a place to work it all out," Manning remembers.

"Since losing my ability to paint, I find writing a place to indulge the visual experience," he says, "another way to paint as well."

In 1987, Manning attended an acting workshop at L.A.'s Braille Institute. He has since supplemented his monthly disability checks with income he's earned doing Braille phone card commercials, voice-overs for Easter Seals' public service announcements and occasional roles as a blind businessman in industrial films.

All these jobs have helped develop his acting skills, Manning says. Unlike actors who can see, he doesn't suffer from stage fright because "I can't see the folks who can see me. I can't be distracted by anything visual," he says. But then there are the drawbacks.

"At a silent moment, there's a fear in the back of the mind. 'Maybe you're not facing the audience. Did I get turned around here?' " Manning says. This problem is sometimes solved by a friend coughing in the audience or by a special heated light that Manning finds to make sure he's facing the audience.

Since, Manning has finished another one-act play--"Before the Drive to Oakwood Station." "Another gun play but it's not about the gun," he says. During a 20-minute monologue, a postal worker describes how he's murdered his family and intends to shoot up the post office before killing himself. In July, the play was read as part of the Mark Taper Forum's Mentor/Playwright Series. ("Shoot" was also developed in a workshop sponsored by the Taper.)

Why a play about a postman gone berserk?

Manning says he started with the goal to "come to terms with one person exploding."

"I'm fascinated with man's inhumanity with man," he says. "At the same time, I don't think there's anything a person does that is inhuman."

Other Manning plays still in the pipeline include one about the Rodney G. King verdict and another about growing up in a South-Central foster home. The problem is time. He returned from Barcelona earlier this week and will begin preparing for a November performance at Highways along with 11 other writers and poets.

All this is keeping him away from a dream to write a full-length play in which a majority of characters are visually impaired. Blind people, he says, are usually in movies and plays for one reason: as a foil for the characters who can see.

"It's always a blind person among sighted people," Manning says with frustration. "You don't see a blind buddy film or two blind people in a love story."

Nor do you often see a play about a blind character buying a gun. Manning makes no apologies for this play's despairing message for both people who can and cannot see in L.A. And what happened for the inspiration for Manning's writing--his blind friend who bought a gun?

"The gun got stolen when his house got broken into," Manning says. "Now someone else has that gun. Who knows what they've done with it."

That's the way these things go, Manning says bitterly. "I don't see a value in a happy ending."

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