She wasn’t talking about the subject matter of the play, Dead Man Walking, although she could have been. This was heavy stuff: rape, murder, death row, and finally, lethal injection. She was talking about the complexity of the production: 40 scenes compared to her previous record 19; “a very rough script” with no directions for staging, for what the set should look like, costumes, etc.; a large cast, some of whom played four and five characters each; plus the added pressure that came with the play’s special requirements as part of the national Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project.
Tim Robbins wrote the stage play at the request of Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the book about her own experience ministering to a death-row inmate in Louisiana, which became the 1995 movie directed by Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Following the movie’s successful run, Sister Helen read that Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was performed every day of the year somewhere in the world, reaching and touching millions of people in a way no film, even a very good one, could.
So, Robbins converted his movie script into a play and then decided against taking it to Broadway. Instead, he would offer it to high school and college drama programs around the country provided they follow Sister Helen’s call to “widen the circle of public discourse” on the death penalty. “Executions,” she writes on the project website (dmwplay.org), “take place as almost secret rituals behind prison walls with only a few witnesses, so most people are never going to get close to state killings – unless the arts take them there.”
And the play, like the movie, really does take you there, dramatically, chillingly, viscerally. And perhaps most surprising, it doesn’t preach. In the end it comes down neither for nor against the state’s sanctioned taking of a murderer’s life. What it does is show the effects of the execution on everyone involved: on the condemned, Matthew Poncelet, and his mother and brothers (denial, shame and what may or may not be remorse); on the families of the two brutalized teenagers (rage, revenge, divorce, the struggle to forgive); on the attorneys parsing law and politics (an eye-for-an-eye versus ethical – and utilitarian – compassion); and finally on Sister Helen herself (how do you justify loving a monster?).
Jake Abell, the Ouray junior who played the father of the murdered Walter Delacroix, summed up the message for me: “You can argue about the death penalty, but you can’t argue about the suffering. Everyone is suffering.”
One of the requirements the project asks of participating schools is to involve at least two other departments in the “discourse.” Ouray did better than two. The English class held a debate. The chemistry class analyzed the chemistry of lethal injection. The art class designed a poster. The film class shot a genuinely terrifying video of the murder scene that was projected on the theatre wall as part of Matthew Poncelet’s climactic confession. Music student Ethan Fries wrote and recorded a haunting guitar solo that became the play’s musical theme.
“I think,” Nixon told me later, “that the play moved a lot of people, cast members and audience, from their previous positions more or less pro-death penalty into the ‘gray area’ of doubt.”
Earlier in the week there was a community forum attended by 60 people. Speakers included a CU sociology professor and Sister Maureen Fenlon, the national coordinator of the student theatre project out of New Orleans. Sister Maureen visits a small number of the productions going on in the country each year and encouraged everyone to “continue the discourse.”
So, I looked up a few facts at deathpenaltyinfo.org. Here is a sampling: Four countries, the United States, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, account for 97 percent of all state executions worldwide. One hundred twenty-two countries around the world have abolished the death penalty. The U.S. is the only western democracy still carrying out death sentences. There are approximately 3,400 people on death row in the U.S. today. One hundred sixty of them are children. Twenty-two juveniles have been executed in the U.S. since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have banned capital punishment: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Texas leads the rest with 405 executions since 1976, four times the next-highest number, Virginia’s 98. Colorado has executed one man in that time.
Between the years 2000 and 2007, an average of five death-row inmates per year were found to have been innocent and released from prison.
There are no national figures on the relative financial (taxpayer) cost of execution versus life imprisonment, but states do have some numbers. California spends an average of $250 million to pursue each capital case to its end. North Carolina spends $2.16 million more per execution than it does on the cost of a life sentence. Texas spends $2.3 million per execution, three times what it spends to imprison someone for 40 years.
As for the argument that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to violent crime? The U.S. has the highest murder rate by far (5.7 per 100,000 population) of all developed countries.
Last year’s school play was the wacky musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Nixon has no idea what she might find for next year. “I think the kids will always remember this one,” she said, justifiably proud, and exhausted, and moved off to begin striking the set.