If you wind up on death row anywhere in the United States, one of two things is going to happen, according to playwright Lynden Harris: "Either you go crazy or you go deep." The paradoxical sense of isolation in a place where one is constantly being watched leads prisoners to numb out or become extremely reflective.
That's one of the fundamental findings Harris presents in her new docudrama, Count, whose premiere opens PlayMakers Rep's PRC2 season this week. Over the last four years, Harris, the artistic director of the activist arts group Hidden Voices, spoke to and corresponded with nearly seventy of the condemned from California to Maine.
What she learned convinced her that most of us have no idea who is actually on death row. We're unaware of the conditions of their incarceration, which inexorably change them. Nor do we know the identifiable—and preventable—trajectories that landed them in a waiting room adjacent to an execution chamber.
We learn more about all of these from the six composite characters we encounter, under the never-ending glare of harsh fluorescent lights, during this Hidden Voices coproduction with PlayMakers. Director Kathryn Hunter-Williams admits that it's a challenge to bring the physical space of death row to a company of actors and an audience. The prisoners' cells measure nine feet by six; the lights remain on even at night.
"You're never alone; you never have a moment of privacy," Hunter-Williams says. Inmates live with little or no actual daylight, disconnected from the sights and sounds of the outside world. Literally marked for death by prison dress code, their physicality must remain nonthreatening at all times.
As a result, prisoners "live in a mode of constant performance," Hunter-Williams says. "You walk around in a very hyperaware state. I don't think there's ever a moment to fully breathe out and relax."
Given the years it takes for death penalty appeals to make their way through the courts, the populations of most death rows remain stable enough for the inmates to form a community, one where the ability to tell a good story is its own form of currency. Sometimes, even less expected things take place. Prisoners who never had the chance in the outside world learn to read well, write well, and develop untapped artistic abilities.
"There's a weird, wonderful, painful beauty around them," Harris says, which proves how deep in our psychology creative expression is. "When humans are stripped of everything else, it's still there."
Hunter-Williams marveled at some inmates' journeys toward self-awareness and responsibility. "When someone says of his crimes, 'Yes, I did do this,' and can actually see where the things that happened at age five or ten led to where he is, that level of reflection and understanding is amazing," she says.
Still, the creative team insists that Count is not a play about the death penalty. "All we're saying is, This is how the guilty live," Hunter-Williams says—who's on death row, how they got there, and what society can do to prevent others from joining them.
After the talk-back session at the end of little independent theatre's production of Conversations with Hitler, one thing was clear: though the company had spent the past year exploring playwright Steven R. Bond's prismatic script, the ninety minutes the audience had with it didn't give us enough time to do the same.
Bond, a winner of two PEN America Prison Writing awards, easily persuades us of his intimacy with cellblock conversations and negotiations of respect, which can spell the difference between walking or being carried out of prison. Under Julya Mirro's direction, Roberto Diaz equally convinces in the lead role of Hagel, a sharp writer in a bogus prison-playwriting class led by a pompous local director (a rewarding John Paul Middlesworth).
To his credit, Bond rejects the big-house clichés enshrined in action-adventure flicks like Escape Plan and The Longest Yard. But we still get lost in a psychological labyrinth that winds between the enacted, scripted scenarios Hagel and others gin up for their class; real-life exchanges with real-life stakes in prison corridors; and Hagel's ultimate showdown with an enigmatic shadow character known only as the Fuhrer (a truly disquieting Livian Kennedy).
Mirro appears to still be navigating this maze as well. Though she elicits vivid performances from actors including Justin Peoples and Liza Guzman, her staging choices, including some awkward mobile backdrops, don't help us distinguish between the functional and dysfunctional ambiguities here.
Despite these difficulties, the dramatic tension and payoff in the final sequences are, well, arresting. A world and characters this intricate deserve further exploration.