Capital Punishment and the Power of Art

By Phil Haslanger 05-01-2014
Dead Man Walking play performed in 2002, Photo by creighton_ccas / Flickr.com

Dead Man Walking play performed in 2002, Photo by creighton_ccas / Flickr.com

The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday has refocused the nation on the inherent contradictions in the death penalty. But here in Wisconsin last week, an opera helped focus the attention of one community on the many human issues woven into the debate over crime and punishment.

In real life at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, a mix of lethal drugs injected into the body of Lockett caused seizures rather than immediate death. On stage in the opera version of Dead Man Walking, the drug machine clicks, hums, and whirrs with efficiency, leaving the fictional character Joe DerRocher dead on the stage.

Dead Man Walking — the book by Sr. Helen Prejean about her work with prisoners on death row and the families of their victims — became an award-winning movie in the mid-1990s starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was recreated as an opera in 2000 and since then has played in 40 cities.

What happened in Madison, Wis., last week was more than the presentation of an opera. It was the culmination of six weeks of some 20 events engaging about 1,500 community members in discussion of many facets of the criminal justice system. The two performances of the opera itself drew about 3,000 people. It was a classic example of art engaging life.

Capital punishment itself is not so much of an issue in Wisconsin – the state has banned it since 1853. But Wisconsin does have the highest rate of black male incarceration in the nation. Its prison system tilts far more toward punishment than toward treatment and rehabilitation. It imprisons twice as many people as its neighboring and demographically similar state of Minnesota.

So those were the hot topics in discussions that stretched from suburbs to central city, from libraries to opera rehearsal spaces, from a major art museum to a church sanctuary, where Sr. Helen herself along with opera composer Jake Heggie talked about their work with this piece.

Through the discussions, people heard powerful personal stories from those in the community who have been touched by violent crime. They heard religious perspectives on the justice system. They learned about prison reform efforts that are having an impact on public policy in Wisconsin.

Heggie told the story of a patron in San Francisco that illustrated the power of the arts – even a fairly rarified art form like opera – to engage a community.

Phyllis Wattis was a woman in her 90s when the San Francisco Opera sought her financial support for what seemed like a risky and controversial venture by a new composer.

Heggie said that she was a supporter of the death penalty and saw no point in the production. But then she kept thinking about it. She read more about the death penalty. She talked with others and with him. And finally, she became a major financial backer.

“The power of art is to have people engage issues,” Heggie quoted her as saying. And that’s exactly what the opera version of Dead Man Walking did for her and for so many others who have been drawn into it.

The quality of the opera was superb. As local music critic Jacob Stockinger wrote, “What else can I say? Only that at the end of my life, when I am adding up the greatest musical experiences I have ever had, this production of Dead Man Walking will rank right near the top.”

But the legacy of Dead Man Walking in Madison – and elsewhere – goes beyond the music to the kind of public engagement its creators hoped for and that played out across the communities in the Madison area.

It’s more than a story of whether an execution can be done without glitches. It’s a story of people on a journey – the condemned man, the parents of the victims, the prison warden, an intrepid nun – each walking along and then finding care and support from others. It’s a story that makes the cost of crime and punishment to the souls of individuals a vivid reality.

It’s a story of how art can transform lives.

Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis.

Image: Dead Man Walking play performed in 2002, Photo by creighton_ccas / Flickr.com

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