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Social Justice Series Explores The Death Penalty With "Dead Man Walking"

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Peter Harrigan
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Evyn Whiteley and Zac Pesner in "Dead Man Walking"

St. Michael's College in Colchester is wrapping up a three-part Theater and Social Justice series focusing on the death penalty. 

The series is built around "Dead Man Walking", which originated as a book by Sister Helen Prejean about her experiences as a chaplain for death row inmates. 

The play is designed to make audience members re-think any pre-conceived notions they might have regarding the death penalty. 

It's based on the true story of Sister Helen Prejean. In the play, she begins a correspondence with Matt Poncelet, a prisoner scheduled to be executed for the rape and murder of two teenagers. 

She agrees to be his spiritual counselor, but in person, she sees that his claims of innocence are shaky, and that at heart, Matt is not only guilty, but an unrepentant racist. When it's clear that his sentence will be carried out, she tries to coax him into admitting his crimes, and accepting divine forgiveness.   

In the following scene, Sister Helen, played by Evyn Whitely, tries to coax empathy out of Matt, who is played by Zachary Pesner.

(Stage scene) Sister Helen says, Do you ever think about those kids?" 

Matt says, "Terrible what happened to those kids." 

Helen says, "Especially since it didn't have to happen. Brother? What would you want to do to them? M:  Kill ‘em!  I'd sure as hell wanna kill ‘em"

The audience's sympathies are tested through the course of the play.  Here, parents of one of the victims tell Sister Helen that they simply cannot summon any compassion for the killer. The parents are played by Craig Resendes and Ivana Andreani.

(Stage scene) Mr. Percy says, "This is not a person, this is an animal. No I take that back.  Animals don't rape and kill their own kind.  Matt Poncelet is God's mistake. And you hold the poor murderer's hand?" 

The audience is also asked to consider the feelings of Matt's mother, who is being shunned by society. Mrs. Poncelet is played by Jordan Dekett. 

(Stage scene) Mrs. Poncelet says, "They think I wasn't there for him, they think I taught him to kill? What do you think, Sister? You think I look like the mother of a killer. That's Matty when he was six. Sometimes I wanna pretend I'm not his mother, so people will leave me alone, not hate me. That's terrible, huh?"

Dead Man Walking originated as a memoir in 1993, and recounted Sister Helen's experiences as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates in Louisiana's Angola Prison.

The book was a bestseller, sparking a national dialogue about the death penalty, and helping to shape the Catholic Church's vigorous opposition to state-sanctioned executions.

In 1996, Dead Man Walking was adapted as a film directed by Tim Robbins.

Sister Helen then asked Robbins to write a stage play.

Robbins agreed, but rather then taking the play to Broadway, he chose instead to offer it to schools and universities, provided they supplement the play with educational programs.

The Dead Man Walking School Theater Project has since been presented in over 250 schools and colleges around the country. 

St. Michael's College has adopted the project for this year's Theater and Social Justice Series. 

The series opened in March with a talk given by Sister Helen. 

That was followed by an April panel discussion.

Peter Harrigan is the St. Michael's College Chair and Professor of Fine Arts.  He's also directing Dead Man Walking.

Harrigan says the panel discussion brought together students and faculty from various departments, including philosophy, sociology, political science and religious studies. 

He says, "It was a wonderful opportunity for the students to get to see the liberal arts interact, because you don't necessarily get to see that all that often in one room." 

Harrigan believes that the death penalty remains a relevant issue in Vermont, where there is the potential for federal death penalty cases to override the absence of state executions. 

Harrigan says, "We're very conscious in the United States of fighting against human rights violations in other counties, and here we are doing something that's very questionable in our own."

Harrigan believes that while Dead Man Walking is written from a Catholic perspective, it transcends questions of religious principle. 

He says, "Although the story has a connection to a religious faith, I really feel like the journey that Helen goes on is a journey of possibility and discovery that we can all relate to, just in terms of looking in the darkest places and trying to find something to grab onto. Trying to find some light."

I also talked with Sister Helen Prejean during her visit to St. Mike's.

She agrees that the moral issues explored in Dead Man Walking are universal.

Sister Helen says, "The common ground for everybody faith or no faith, church or no church, agnostic, atheist or anybody, is human rights. And the universal declaration of human rights.  That we can all stand behind articles 3 and 5.  Every human being has a right to life.  No one should be tortured and dehumanized and killed. So the death penalty is very much a human rights issue."  

Sister Helen says that Dead Man Walking intentionally provokes conflicting emotions in audience members. 

She says, "It brings people to probably the deepest levels of their own heart.  The play of Dead Man Walking brings you equally over to the murder victims' families, the suffering of the murder victim's families, trying to get out from under it, and being told "What we're going to do for you to get justice is we're gonna kill the one who killed your loved one and you are going to get to watch.  And then they meet the perpetrator, and you don't like him, he's not remorseful, he doesn't claim what he does.  But then you meet his momma.  You meet his brothers.  And so the audience keeps going back and forth over to both sides of their own heart on this issue."

Finally, Sister Helen has advice for the actors taking on roles in the play. 

She tells them, "Be your character. And be honest about your character. Susan Sarandon says the vocation of acting is about enforced compassion. Because you get inside the lives and skin of all different kind of people... people you don't like, or people who are suffering. And you become them, and by going there, you enrich your own life, and you can develop compassion and respect for all life, by doing it."

Dead Man Walking will be performed at St Michael's College through April 20th