March 1, 2007
Passionate cause is thriving
Sister Helen Prejean's anti-death penalty story is now a stage play.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL, The Kansas City Star
Sister Helen Prejean has seen herself portrayed repeatedly on film and on
And while that might go to a person's head, Prejean, 67, is about the least
pretentious media star you're likely to encounter.
"It's about me, but I'm like the prism through which the light comes,"
Prejean said by telephone from the Burbank Airport last weekend.
It began with Dead Man Walking, her nonfiction account of her ministry to
convicts on death row in Louisiana. It was on the best-seller charts for 31
Then Tim Robbins adapted it as a film. Sean Penn played a fictional convict,
a composite of two of the real death-row inmates Prejean worked with, and
Prejean was played by Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar for her performance.
It became an opera by composer Jake Heggie with a libretto by playwright
And Prejean talked Robbins into adapting it as a stage play, which the Avila
University theater department is presenting this weekend.
"I remember I sat at the San Francisco Opera and there was Sister Helen and
she was singing, 'My journey, my journey, and I know it's taking the people
on this journey, too," Prejean said. "So I'm like an instrument or a
witness. I'm not trying to be overly humble in this. It's really the way I
feel. Because I know that before that ride is over they're gonna be brought
deep into the depths of that issue."
So every time the opera is produced, every time the play is staged, every
time someone rents the DVD, Prejean sees it all as a way to heighten the
death penalty in the public consciousness. She approached Robbins about the
idea of writing a stage version after reading an article about Arthur
Miller's "Death of a Salesman," which has been produced countless times all
over the world.
"I prevailed on him that for a year we would just let Jesuit schools do it,
and he agreed to that," she said. "And the understanding was that at the end
of that year he would take the play back."
Robbins was so impressed by the response of young people and the play's
ability to stir discussion in the community that he decided to continue
licensing it to schools. Now it's in its third year.
"He knows the important thing is to get the discourse going and also to
start the educational process," she said. "Theater was always meant to deal
with the issues of the time and not just be this fantasy thing . It's using
the arts to bring people to deeper reflection. And the death penalty is so
hidden for most people . it's not a moral issue that affects most people
personally. And so this brings them close to the reality. You know, the play
is constructed just like the film. It brings you over to both sides. It's
not just a polemic against the death penalty."
Anyone else in Prejean's position would probably be enjoying the wealth that
comes from literary success.
"What do I do with money? I take the money and run," she cracked.
In reality she gives everything she earns to her order, the Sisters of St.
Joseph of Medaille.
"The sisterhood supports you in whatever you want to do," she said. "So it
gives you beautiful freedom. So whatever you make you turn back into the
sisterhood . for the needs of the community and the mission of the
Critics of those who would do away with the penalty usually make a simple
argument: That society would be better off without housing and feeding
killers in prison.
Prejean, obviously, sees it another way.
If there were no death penalty, she said, society would benefit "because
then we don't engage ourselves in this protocol of death, of killing them,
and by even claiming the arrogance that we can decide who lives and who
Sustaining the death penalty doesn't make sense even if you look at it
simply as a matter of money.
"It takes huge amounts of resources to keep this death machine going," she
said. "And we could be putting that into life and preventing violence. We
know where the seeds of violence are, where they're given birth to in our
society, and we need to prevent it. We need to deal with at-risk kids, we
need to deal with homelessness, we need to deal with education, jobs, people
being addicted to drugs and alcohol."
It actually costs less to keep somebody in prison for life, she said. But
the bottom line is what is says about us as a society.
"The less we involve ourselves in making our social policy legalizing
torture and death, the better off we are as a people," she said. "We're
really not worthy of this thing. That's the main reason we need to get rid
Sister Helen Prejean will do a book signing from 2 to 3:30 p.m. today at
Barnes and Noble at Town Center Plaza, 119th and Roe, Leawood. She will also
speak in a question- and-answer session after the opening night performance
of "Dead Man Walking" tonight at the Goppert Theatre at Avila University,
11901 Wornall Road. The show begins at 8. Tonight's performance is sold out,
but tickets remain for performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2
p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $10. Call (816) 501-3699. For more information go
to prejean.org or dmwplay.org.
Source : Kansas City Star