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Dead Man Walking

The evil that men and governments do



Dead Man Walking

Justice Theater Project
Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Center, Raleigh
Closed Feb. 10

Carole Marcotte as Sister Helen Prejean and Sean Brosnahan as Matt Poncelet in Dead Man Walking - PHOTO COURTESY OF JUSTICE THEATER PROJECT
  • Photo courtesy of Justice Theater Project
  • Carole Marcotte as Sister Helen Prejean and Sean Brosnahan as Matt Poncelet in Dead Man Walking

The sharpness in director Deb Royals' voice on the telephone call from North Carolina conveys the stress she's under at the moment. While I'm wrapping up an NEA fellowship in arts criticism in Los Angeles, Royals is helming a play in Raleigh on the death penalty—Tim Robbins' stage adaptation of his 1995 film Dead Man Walking—during the same week the Council of State is deciding how to deal with a recent procedural impasse blocking the use of lethal injection in North Carolina.

The state's Medical Board has ruled that doctors can't participate in any execution; the federal courts say the procedure isn't constitutional unless they do. As a result, 10 senior state officials, including Agriculture secretary Steve Troxler, are now determining the immediate course the state will take on the death penalty. The vote has just been taken: 7-3 in support of capital punishment. The secretary of Agriculture has voted with the majority.

"How can the person elected to be in charge of the State Fair determine how we can go forward with the death penalty?" Royals asks. "They're not people whose backgrounds are conducive for making this kind of decision. It's not their area of expertise."

Her frustration at the shifting circumstances of state-supported execution is audible. "Our educational system doesn't work, our social support systems don't work, and our system of justice doesn't work for these people," Royals says. "If all those systems are broken, how can we kill?"

Royals' conclusions are sweeping, but she speaks from particularly recent experience. Over the past two years, members of her company, the Raleigh-based Justice Theater Project, have been interviewing people with a broad range of views about the death penalty from across the state: religious leaders, law enforcement and prison officials, activists, politicians, and families touched by violence, among others.

The techniques they've used are similar to those Moises Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Group employed while researching what would ultimately become the 2000 play The Laramie Project. The troupe presents their findings two months from now, on April 13-14, in the world premiere of Still...Life, an evening-length work at Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Center. Given the context of our conversation, her remarks more than hint at the conclusions they've already reached.

Clearly, each of these works seeks to invoke the theater in one of its earliest functions: as a public place where a culture can safely deliberate the most intractable issues facing it. Some two and one-half millennia ago in Greece, in Antigone, Sophocles asked what must be done when an individual's duties to the state are placed in direct conflict with ethical responsibilities to one's religion and family. Before and since, playwrights have used the stage to lay hands on social issues that just don't go away.

But let's be candid: A crisis in confidence has long accompanied this function of the drama. Scores of plays invoking the theater of social conscience have actually had the effect of eroding the public's trust in the discourse.

How? Quite simply, by cheating. When a playwright stacks the dramatic deck of cards, conveniently equipping the "correct" side with the best arguments and the most eloquent of spokespersons, human characters devolve into straw men, and the public conversation on the issues becomes debased. Small wonder Plato would have barred the art form from his perfect republic.

For this reason it is particularly appropriate to ask what punches, if any, Dead Man Walking pulls in its deliberations on capital punishment. Its presentation here is part of a national initiative called the Dead Man Walking School Theater Project ( More than 100 local productions have been coordinated over the past three years by the Death Penalty Discourse Network and the Los Angeles-based theater company The Actors' Gang, which commissioned the work. Officials at UNC-Chapel Hill have just announced the play will be produced on campus next year.

If I were looking to tilt a public argument against capital punishment, I wouldn't start with the composite character of Matthew Poncelet. He's a brick wall of greasy evasions and racial epithets, completely unrepentant for his part in the rape and double homicide of two high-school teenagers in Louisiana.

The mother of one of his victims discloses the crime in unflinching detail: "My daughter's body was nude, supine, legs spread-eagled. The coroner's report said her vagina was all tore up. At first they couldn't find the class pin she was wearing because it was embedded so deep from the stabbing."

The forensic examination changes the death penalty views of the family dentist, the mother tells us: "Before he reached his hand into that bag with all the lime in it and fished out Hope's jaw, he said he'd always been against the death penalty. But boy, after that, he was for it."

No, this is not The Exonerated, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's gallery of wrongfully convicted citizens that was presented by Deep Dish Theater last fall. But as Sister Helen Prejean closely probes the face of evil, she also questions a state that arguably embraces nihilism in its will to permanently erase damaged souls like Poncelet.

If, as Albert Camus suggested in The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide was indeed the central philosophical dilemma in Europe at the start of World War II, murder based on ideology may well be ours. When a principle or belief is elevated above the value of human life, a culture produces both saints and suicide bombers. A society which kills its monsters—while it uncritically continues making new ones, through greed, neglect and broken social systems—lacks the consciousness to be called ethical.

Historically, absolute knowledge alone—the knowledge of the gods—has justified similarly absolute, irreversible action to the religious zealot. The dilemma facing death penalty supporters is that so much less than this—the absence of a reasonable doubt—is all American jurisprudence needs, to this day, to justify the shedding of blood.

This is the issue exercised in Dead Man Walking.

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