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Cross-Campus Production Gives Face to Death Penalty

By Rosemary D'Amour

Dead Man Walking written by Tim Robbins and featuring the words and voice of Troy Anthony Davis will run at the American University Katzen Arts Center September 29-October 1

The play Dead Man Walking, written by Tim Robbins, will run at the American University’s Studio Theatre at the Katzen Arts Center September 29 through October 1.

A moving and intimate production at American University’s Studio Theatre at the Katzen Arts Center, September 29 through October 1, focusing on the human impact of the death penalty aims to raise awareness about the issue through a talk-back session with cast members and a panel discussion.

Dead Man Walking tells the story of the relationship between a death row inmate and his spiritual advisor, rooted in the experiences of Sr Helen Prejean. The Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project focuses on using the play, written by actor and director Tim Robbins, to spark conversation about the issue of capital punishment, using students to both tell and witness the story in an intimate setting.

The production and events are sponsored by the School of Communication, the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Performing Arts, the Washington College of Law, the Office of the University Chaplain and the School of Public Affairs' Department of Justice, Law and Society.

“It took almost a year to put this together here,” said SOC Professor Gemma Puglisi, who spearheaded the project following a meeting with Prejean in 2010. “But what I’m really proud of is that other schools are joining us—and this is what AU is great at—we’re not in our own little silos, everyone works together for a great purpose.”

“This is such a heavy topic and is so dramatic, that having it in a smaller theater really captures the essence of what it’s like to be in this situation—the tragedy, the loneliness,” Puglisi said. “This play will give people a glimpse of that, they will see what the process is like.”

Puglisi has worked against the death penalty for years, but most recently through her advocacy of Troy Anthony Davis, who was executed just days before the curtain rises on Dead Man Walking at AU.

AU’s production of Dead Man Walking is dedicated to Davis. The production will feature a recording made by Davis, as well as other materials.

Originally, the play was going to be used as a reading, but after consideration, and effort from the show’s director, Rick Hammerly, SOC/MA '06, CAS/MA '13, it was made into a full production, but one with a deconstructed and innovative approach in portraying the story of these characters.

“The way we’ve adapted this, it puts the emphasis on text,” he said. “It strips everything away so that you’re dealing with the relationships between these characters and the ambiguity of the issue.”

“Adding on a layer and bringing Troy [into the performance], that is real life, you can see what this issue does to people,” Hammerly said. “Sure you can see the play, it’s easy to think of it as art, but then you add that layer of reality that makes it more poignant, and really more important.”

Schools that participate in the Theatre Project are each required to incorporate a special element into the interpretation—this can be anything within or without the performances. AU will hold two events. On Friday, September 30, the director and actors will participate in a “Talk Back” series with the audience following the performance, to discuss its immediate impact.

Between the two final shows on Saturday, October 1, there will be a panel featuring individuals who have each been impacted by the death penalty. Panelists include Terri Steinberg, the mother of Justin Wolfe, the youngest man on death row; Jim Rocap, an attorney for Teresa Lewis, the first woman executed in the state of Virginia; Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person ever to be exonerated of charges due to DNA evidence; and Diann Rust-Tierney, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The panel will be moderated by SOC professor Rick Stack, whose book, Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance & Victims of Capital Punishment--applies theories of public relations to influence opinion about capital punishment.

“This is really going to personalize the experience,” Puglisi said. “We want to get the community involved.”