Apparently our first performance created such a buzz amongst the staff that word reached regional director of the DPS, Kenneth Lassiter, and the face of the DPS for media relations, Keith Acree. Also in attendance were the bosses of Dr. Kuhns and Ms. Demetral, the warden, unit manager of death row, deputy warden and a DPS photographer. The pressure was on, but we were ready.
One of the things about repetition – which is the essence of memorization and core of acting – is you get better with each rep. Our first showing was great, but not without glitches. This was so far out of our comfort zone, it would have required a gyroscope and map to get back. The other great thing about acting is that it’s fun. Like the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons you pretend to be a character, delving into his or her psyche in order to better portray that character’s actions and emotions. It’s a type of perspective taking and can be highly therapeutic if the players really get into it.
Our “stage” – replete with a Chicago skyline done in pastel chalk, a water fountain made of cardboard and colored paper, and two long tables with twelve chairs – was a taped off section of Pod-4. This cell block was typically used as solitary confinement and a quarantine. Over the years, as death row’s population shrank from overturned sentences, Pod-4 became a multi-purpose block used to show tour groups or hold dominoes tournament and . . .plays.
There were maybe seventy people in the audience, or so we were told. I wasn’t about to violate the “third wall”, the division between the make believe world on stage and the real world offstage where a couple of state officials sat and watched with wary interest. No worries. I was no longer “me”, but Juror #3, and his only concern was rendering a verdict in this capital case.
As novel as the idea of death row prisoners acting in a play is, I have to stress the significance of performing Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men. For those who are unfamiliar with the story it’s worth watching the old black and white movie with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb to get a feel for the story. Once you have, imagine the supreme irony of twelve, most minority, death row prisoners acting as jurors in a capital case involving a 19 year old minority defendant. Ha. Ha-ha.
We filed onto the stage and took our places, making a valiant effort of not looking into the expectant faces of the audience lest we forget our lines. It was easier for me because I had to face the other jurors, so all I could see were the blurred legs of the people in the front row (it helped not wearing my glasses!). As worried as I had been about only having a month to memorize nearly eighty lines of dialogue, using the appropriate inflections in those lines, and getting the blocking right the character became my refuge. The rants of Juror #3 guided me through 49 minutes of jury deliberation and finally, acquittal.
Once the play was over and the applause done, here came the big wigs to shake our hands. Difficult to describe what that was like. These are people you see on TV or hear their names whispered in fear by prison staff or mentioned in conjunction with the other high level state officials. In other words, If the warden walking through the unit makes the guards nervous and tense, Kenneth Lassiter and Keith Acree can make the warden sweat. Not that he had cause, because the play was a huge success. Their smiles, devoid of anything but pleasure, were proof.
Okay, it wasn’t quite Broadway, but our enthusiasm and work ethic were paired with Ms. Demetral’s theatre knowledge (she minored in theater in college) and confidence in our ability to carry out the play. Without her willingness to volunteer her time for Drama and come in on weekends for rehearsals there wouldn’t have been a play. So if we were successful, much of the credit goes to her.
A part of me wishes there was a way to record the performance for others to see there is more to the men on death row than the crimes we’ve been convicted of. I understand we are a long way from reaching public support, but in the mean time we will continue to change the narrative of how people view the human beings they want to execute. I will certainly do my part in recording this evolving history. Stay tuned.