It’s twenty years since Helen Prejean, CSJ, published Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. A decade after the book was published, a film adaptation was released starring Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. In recognition of the 20th Anniversary of publication of Dead Man Walking the book was re-issued with a preface by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and new afterwords by Prejean, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.
The story of Sister Helen’s experience working with death row inmates has been retold many times, including this Frontline program devoted to the ways in which the book and movie have influenced Americans’ thoughts about capital punishment. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/angel/interviews/hprejean)
The book, the film and multiple other venues in which Sister Helen has participated have raised consciousness and ignited public discourse on the topic of capital punishment in this country, the only industrialized nation on earth that still employs the death penalty. Twenty years ago the idea of enforcing the death penalty was in its ascendancy; though the numbers have declined, at this writing there are still over 3000 men and women on death row in the U.S.
Helen Prejean is in the Twin Cities this week to participate actively in the evolving dialogue, a process she has done much to shape and methodically promote. The anchor event of Prejean’s time in Minneapolis is the production of Dead Man Walking by young thespians at Benilde-St Margaret’s Academy. That production is one piece in what has become a mini-movement — the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project that engages young people and theater audiences in the performance and discussion of the book, the film and the story.
The play itself is written by Tim Robbins who wrote, produced and directed the film adaptation of Prejean’s book. According to the website “instead of taking the play to Broadway, Robbins decided to use the play as a tool to create deeper reflections on the death penalty among high school and college communities.” (http://www.dmwplay.org) There is an expectation – actually a requirement – that the sponsoring theater program will involve at least two other academic departments in the process. For nearly ten years the stage production of Dead Man Walking has generated discussion in hundreds of schools around the country. At the same time, the discussion of the capital punishment continues online, informed by regular issues of Death Penalty Discourse a monthly digital facebook feature that presents related stories, testimony and event updates.
Alas, the performances at BSM were November 1-3. Still, there are several programs on the topic of the death penalty scheduled for this week. The first is a discussion of the play by Sister Helen followed by a panel discussion entitled “Being in Another’s Shoes.” The program will be Wednesday, November 6, 12:30 p.m. at BSM, 2501 Highway 100, in St. Louis Park.
On Friday, November 8, 7:00 p.m. Sister Helen will speak at the Church of the Annunciation, 709 West 54th Street, Minneapolis. 612 824 9993 x251.
Notes: Of particular relevance to the talk at Annunciation is one of Sister Helen Prejean’s most recent articles,”Bolt from the Blue: Encounters with everyday annunciations” recently published in America Magazine. (http://americamagazine.org/print/156632.
Other resources include a lengthy interview with Sister Helen Prejean conducted by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! “Sister Helen Prejean on Decades of Death Penalty Activism”. June 19, 2013. (http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2013/6/19/dead_man_walking_extended_interview_with_sister_helen_prejean_on_her_decades_of_death_penalty_activism)
Another unique resource is Witness to Innocence (http://www.witnesstoinnocence.org/index.html), originated in part by Sister Helen Prejean, continues the discussion of capital punishment in the US. of, by and for exonerated death row inmates and their loved ones.