“You’ve got Neil Simon, and then you’ve got everyone else,” claims Administrative Law Judge Paul B. Handy.
Handy’s sweeping comment is not meant to dismiss the work of other playwrights. Rather, it’s aimed at conveying his reverence for the acclaimed theater-scribe…though many of Handy’s own plays – 11 produced – closer resemble the works of Mississippi attorney-turned-author John Grisham.
Legal and courtroom dramatics heightened by societal and racial issues are key ingredients for many of Grisham’s fictional novels, including A Time to Kill and The Client, and similarly comprise some of Handy’s one-act plays, one of which will be performed at the 2008 MSBA Annual Meeting in Ocean City. Entitled Satellite Parking, the play is Handy’s theatrical take on psychiatric commitment-hearings – a heavy topic, but presented in a light, comedic fashion.
This legal matter arose frequently during Handy’s combined decade-long service in Maryland’s and Washington D.C.’s respective Offices of Administrative Hearings (OAH). The topic served equally well as a selling point for the MSBA’s Administrative Law Section, who contacted the judge about presenting the play at the beach. Handy was quick to oblige the Section filled with some of his former colleagues, though there was one catch: the inquisitive Section would have to provide members to act out the play.
“I guess we’re all willing to embarrass ourselves,” jokes Robert Drummer, who will participate in the play along with Section Chair Andrea Leahy-Fucheck and several others on Thursday morning, June 12, at the Clarion Hotel in Ocean City (a panel discussion on commitment-hearings will follow the performance).
Drummer’s sentiment has been shared by many of the attorneys and judges who dive head-first into the thespian-pool through Handy’s plays. Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Maryland Court of Appeals, had only performed in the comfort of his boyhood home prior to his stint as Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Handy’s Merrymen, a play about President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War.
“It was a topical play and very relevant,” says Bell, who didn’t have to rely on his limited acting skills to drive the play. “The dramatics came from the words.”
Owing to the meticulous research habits he has acquired through his full-time profession, Handy typically engulfs himself in documents and journals to develop the context for his historically-rooted scripts. In his drama on Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the struggle leading to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the playwright spent two years pouring over numerous biographies of Marshall, his cases and written decisions. Through this, Handy found a memorable anecdote that not only sums up the times in which Marshall and his fellow crusaders fought, but also serves as the title to his show.
Played by Washington D.C. OAH Chief Judge Tyrone T. Butler, Marshall addresses the audience:
“You know, when I finished college at Lincoln, the college president took us aside – and I’ll always remember this – and he said, ‘Everyone in his commencement speech will tell you this and that. They’ll tell you the world is waiting for you with outstretched arms. That is half of the truth. The full truth is, the world is waiting for you with outstretched arms, with a club in each hand. And if you’re not careful, it’ll beat your brains out.’ They say every man in this country can have a full, fair trial. That is half of the truth. The full truth is, he can have a fair trial – if he has the money. And if his skin has some pigmentation to it, something he has absolutely no control over, all bets are off.”
Though Bell did not sport his thespian-robe for Full Truth, he did attend its staging at the University of Baltimore on March 27. Proceeds went to the Elder Theodore L. Barber Scholarship Foundation, which assists at-risk youth.
“[The play] went right to the heart of what Thurgood Marshall was all about, and what Brown v. Board was all about,” continues Bell. “It hit the high points, the salient points – it gave a humanity to it. They all had their little foibles, but they were committed to the goal.”
Handy admits that his Marshall play was a bit controversial simply because “[Marshall] was a controversial guy.” And while the Justice’s “colorful” behavior is often remembered, he adds, it in no way diminishes his work. “What he accomplished was incredible. He was a brilliant strategist.”
That might be the common thread between these two judges.
Handy’s uncanny knack for multi-tasking is readily apparent. When he clocks-out of the OAH office in Washington, his work is hardly complete. His plays have been performed throughout the mid-Atlantic region and stretched to Chicago and Arkansas. But its during the calm evenings at home or at D.C.’s Playwright’s Forum that Handy finds the time and the motivation for his stories – though he notes the passion to write has always been there.
Prior to entering the University of Baltimore’s School of Law, Handy toyed with the idea of studying screenwriting but decided he wanted to secure a lucrative job that would allow him to pay off his college debts. And the move proved profitable beyond belief, as Handy has found inspiration for his hobby in his legal career.
“You draw on the experiences but fictionalize the personal aspect,” explains Handy, whose Satellite Parking was well-served from his stint in the Maryland Public Defender’s Mental Health Division in the 1990s.
He now presides over cases concerning public works, emergency shelters, housing violations and taxi-cab infractions. While these subjects could serve for some interesting scripts, Handy has taken to broadening his scope with a romantic comedy. Whether or not it proves to be a step closer to the Neil Simon-watermark remains to be seen, but Handy has definitely established that he is in a class all his own.