Students raise awareness of human dignity, human suffering
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is an 18,000-acre prison farm with a death row and execution house. It has been the site of over 150 executions since 1930. But on Feb. 18 and Feb. 19, Angola's death row moves to the stage of Rockhurst High School's Rose Theater as student actors premier the play, "Dead Man Walking."
Marty Denzer/Key photo
Rockhurst High School senior Ben Molini portrays death row inmate Matthew Poncelet in the school's production of "Dead Man Walking." Kathy Kane, as Sister Helen Prejean, listens in the background.
The play, a joint project of Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean, the Jesuits and actor/screenwriter Tim Robbins, was offered to Jesuit high schools across the country as a means of hortatory discussion of the death penalty. "Dead Man Walking," (the call of the prison escort as a prisoner takes the walk from his cell to the execution chamber) is based on Robbin's Academy Award-winning 1995 film, which itself was adapted from Sister Prejean's book of the same name.
In a December 2004 story in the National Jesuit News, Sister Prejean said it took almost four years to persuade Robbins to adapt the film to the stage. But in 2003, the script was offered to Jesuit high schools and colleges, and Notre Dame de Namur University in California and the University of Notre Dame. Several stipulations accompanied the play: It could not be produced for commercial gain, and each school had to simultaneously involve at least one other discipline or department in the discussion of capital punishment, using the text of Sister Prejean's book.
The Rockhurst production will be the culmination of a month-long Campaign for Human Dignity. During the campaign, the school celebrated Catholic Schools Week, Black History Month, and its annual mission week. Student organizations, including the ecology club, National Honor Society, Regis volunteer service club and the multi-ethnic educational team participated in projects aimed at increasing awareness of human dignity and solidarity.
The Student Government Association collected $3,585 for victims of the Dec. 26 tsunamis in Indonesia. The Pro-life Club, Amnesty International, and the speech and debate clubs all organized activities and projects dealing with nonviolence, abortion and rights of the unborn, and responsible sexuality.
During the annual Mission Week students work to raise awareness and money for Jesuit missions in Honduras and Belize, the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, S.D., and the "Books for Peace" program in El Salvador. Last year, approximately $30,000 was raised for the missions.
Tom Norman, who teaches a senior course in liturgy and worship, said that the campaign for human dignity, ending with the play, "Dead Man Walking," fits right into the Jesuit Ignation model of education: Study, experience and reflect. Rockhurst students will not only attend the production, but will be studying capital punishment in social science classes and reflecting on the book, the play and what they have learned about human dignity and the death penalty in theology classes.
Ben Molini plays the role of Matthew Poncelet, a death row inmate. The senior, who states unequivocally that he is against the death penalty, admitted that it had been "a little strange getting into the head of the character."
"My job is to get up on stage in front of all my fellow students and die. It's not a comfortable role to get into, but it's intriguing. Here I am, trying to make people realize that this is a really despicable guy who deserves to live."
In an interview with Sister Prejean on PBS' "Frontline," she was asked about the character. "The Matthew Poncelet character is worse than any single person I've ever encountered. He was harder, and I concurred with Tim (Robbins) when he said we cannot make him sympathetic at all because the moral issue of the death penalty is not whether we can kill sympathetic people, but the Matthew Poncelets of the world," she said.
"It's the longest, darkest road in the world at those gates at Angola," Sister Prejean said. And you know what's waiting for you when you get there. It's always colder in executions. So bitterly cold."
The role of Sister Prejean is being played by drama department director and teacher Kathy Kane. She said it was "really neat to see young people debate moral issues. That's what theater should do, make people think."
To Kane, who turned over the direction of the play to Andy Garrison of Kansas City's Actors Training Studio so she could play the role of Sister Prejean, one aspect of the death penalty dilemma is that it is a catch-22: How can you kill someone to prove killing is wrong?
"It sparks discussion," she said.
The play production will be evaluated by the actors and audiences. The evaluations and a video of the production will be sent to Tim Robbins and Sister Prejean, who will review the productions from all the participating high schools and colleges. From those videos and evaluations, Robbins plans to fine tune the roles and production of the play "Dead Man Walking," before opening on Broadway. No date has been set for the opening.
"Dead Man Walking" will be at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 18 and 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 19.