Dead men do tell tales


Every seat in Tarbutton Theater is filled, but the audience is eerily quiet. The student actors sit, expressionless, on benches surrounding the dimly lit stage. An oratorio combining haunting woodwinds, strings, and voices, composed by Robert Brady 05Ox , sets a solemn mood for the stage version of Dead Man Walking , based on Sister Helen Prejean's stinging indictment of the death penalty.

Oxford's March production was part of the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project, a nationwide effort to broaden discussion about the death penalty organized by Prejean, an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, and actor-director-playwright Tim Robbins, who also wrote and directed the 1995 film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.  

"When the film hit theaters, I was amazed at the way it provoked discussion and debate," Robbins writes in an open letter on the project's website. "Does the death penalty truly help murder victims heal? Who benefits? Can it be applied fairly? Raising questions [that promote] public discourse is what theater is all about."

Robbins offered his play to some thirty Jesuit universities, stipulating that they involve at least two other disciplines in a simultaneous study project on capital punishment, and provide feedback on the play. Oxford is the only non-Catholic institution, and one of the few schools in the South, involved with the project.

"This play has been a difficult one to work on, for a number of reasons," says Professor of English Clark Lemons 78PhD , director of theater at Oxford. "The emotions the play releases for the cast and crew, who have had to deal with challenging scenes and creating props like the lethal injection gurney, have had to be channeled into art and that's not easy. "

Jessica Royals 05Ox , who portrayed Prejean, says she didn't have strong convictions about capital punishment previously. "Now, I see that there are a lot of people involved, not just the person who was killed and the person who is going to be killed. When the state puts someone to death, it affects us all."

Just before the run of the production in early March, the cast was able to meet Sister Prejean after a talk she gave at St. Brendan's Church in Cumming, Georgia.

"She was interested in who would be playing her in our production," says Lemons, who introduced the nun to Royals. "The students got to tell her what the play meant to them."

Alex Walker 05Ox , who as the unrepentant convicted killer Matthew Poncelet delivers many of his lines with a dismissive sneer, says his understanding of his character changed over time.  

"At first, he seems so mean and aggressive. But his belligerence disguised his fear and confusion," Walker says. "I used to think of the death penalty as a necessary evil for certain criminals, such as mass murderers or war criminals. But the system is so flawed. It makes it difficult to say this person is clearly guilty."

As part of the project, the college also hosted panel discussions with experts such as Josh Noblitt 04T , an investigator for the Georgia Capital Defenders; Aimee Maxwell, director of the Georgia Innocence Project; and Maureen Fenlon, national coordinator of the Dead Man Walking project.

Related events took place across campus. Associate Professor of Political Science William Cody's constitutional law class spent a week studying six major Supreme Court decisions concerning capital punishment; Assistant Professor of History Susan Ashmore's class studied the execution of the Rosenbergs; the Few Debate Society of Oxford held a debate on the death penalty; hundreds of Oxford students saw the play Dead Man Walking and wrote critiques; and student artists created mixed-media collages for the exhibit "Artists on Death Row," displayed in the Tarbutton Theater lobby.

"This was more than just a play," says Lemons. "I really didn't have to ask anyone to do anything--faculty and students just came up with their own collaborations."

On the evening of March 1, just two days before the play opened, the Progressive Student Union sponsored a candlelight vigil on the Oxford Quad for a Jackson Prison inmate executed that evening by lethal injection.

"Being at the candlelight vigil was weird, because there is a vigil in the play," says Royals. "But when the clock struck the hour and I thought, 'He's actually being killed right now,' it was very emotional."—M.J.L.



© 2005 Emory University