Sometime, Mary Ella Randall's writing efforts pay off better than others. This time, she says, she "hit the jackpot." Randall, an adjunct English professor at the University of the District of Columbia, won first place and a $1,000 prize in the fourth annual competition for black playwrights sponsored by WMAR-TV (Channel 2) in conjunction with Black History Month.
Her hour-long historical play, "The Day Judge Whipper Went to Jail," which aired last weekend, depicts events in the life of William Whipper, a probate judge in South Carolina during Reconstruction.
Randall got the idea because, she says, "I married into it."
"Judge Whipper adopted my husband's grandfather when said grandfather was about 15 years old," she says. "And my husband would frequently talk about this judge . . . And always in the back of my mind was a question that he'd never answered: Why was a black man a judge in Reconstruction South Carolina?
"So even before the contest I had started trying to find out about this William Whipper man."
The characters in the play, Randall says, are all historical figures. "I realized I had the elements of good drama in the historical events and the way the key people were involved."
Randall's main task was researching Whipper's life -- "a lot of fishing and fumbling," she says -- to develop the characters. "The events and the people made the story, and I just brought them to life."
William Whipper grew up in Philadelphia. His father, Randall learned, "was a prosperous businessman. Which meant that his son grew up in an atmosphere of prosperity and comfort."
He joined the Union Army and moved to the Charleston, S.C., area after he got out.
"He and a number of other blacks -- some of them had previously been freed men and were educated; others were men who had been emancipated, but they had intelligence and good old-fashioned mother wit -- went to the Constitutional Convention in 1868," Randall says. "[They] developed what some historians consider to be a very advanced, liberal constitution, definitely one of the best that any Reconstruction state had, and some historians might say one of the best of any."
Randall, a Silver Spring resident, is "over 60" and has been retired for four years, but she still teaches some classes at UDC and writes children's fiction.
"I've been working on manuscripts for stories for young readers and collecting rejection slips on them," she says.
Her writing reflects her concern for the recognition of black culture. Says Randall, "I'm interested in teachers and readers knowing who the black writers are and what their publications are."
In her writing, as in her classroom, Randall wants to teach others. "You learn from history. History repeats itself and you've got to look to the past to get answers for the present, which of course nobody does," she says. "Every generation stumbles around and makes its own mistakes.
"But implicit in 'Judge Whipper' and his friends, and Reconstruction in South Carolina and in the South, is a lesson for South Africa, because after the struggle, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, people have found they can work together and live together and share together, and they have not fallen into the ocean," she says.
"The world has not fallen apart. In fact, it has become a better world. I don't think we've come nearly as far as we would like to be, but we've certainly come a lot further than we were in 1964," she says. "And we certainly have a model we can show to South Africa."
After the success of her play writing, Randall has no intention of slowing down. Rather, she plans to do more writing.
"Oh, I found another contest!" she says. "It has to do with the black experience in the United States . . . I think I'm going to enter my much-rejected fiction."