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Fall Edition
Volume 99, Number 2

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Forgiving what we can't forget (continued)

Valerie Rae Smith, chair of the Department of Theatre
Valerie Rae Smith  is chair of the Department of Theatre. She recently wrote Between Two Chairs, a one-woman play exploring the relationship between memory development and memory loss inspired by her four-year-old son and her seventy-year-old father who lives with Alzheimer’s disease. She also directed the stage and screen versions of Passion and Politics, which dramatizes the work of the artists responsible for the creation of the capitol building, for the Harrisburg State Capitol Centennial Celebration. 

‘Annunciations are common. Incarnations are rare.’

Theatre cast raises difficult questions of justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness 

by Valerie Rae Smith

A man is convicted of attacking  a teenage couple in a local lover’s lane. He and his accomplice rape the young woman, stab her body several times, and then shoot the couple at close range with a .22 caliber rifle. The parents of the murdered are left to wonder about their children’s final hours of torture. 

Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun, is asked to write to this murderer, now on death row. He, in turn, asks her to provide spiritual council as he prepares to be executed by lethal injection. 

Fourteen Messiah College students are cast in the play Dead Man Walking, which is based upon Prejean’s nonfiction account of her work with death row inmates. The actors play the people in this real-life story: the murderer, the slain, their parents, the nun, lawyers, and activists. 

During one rehearsal I ask cast members to place themselves on a continuum: stage right represents a pro-death penalty position; stage left represents an anti-death penalty position. We scatter across the stage taking our own positions in this never-ending debate. Some of us shuffle our feet, unsure of our commitment to a particular spot on the stage floor. We recognize that we are not in agreement, but we are committed to telling this story. We wrestle with Sister Prejean’s words: “To me the image for the Church is to be on both arms of the cross . . . with the ones being executed and with the victim’s families.” 

Sister Prejean tries to follow the example of Jesus, believing that every person is worth more than his worst act. Her mother cautions her, “Helen, you’re trying to love Judas. Annunciations are common. Incarnations are rare.” Her mother is right. It’s easy for us to offer platitudes when speaking generally about our role as Christians in society. We tell the world we must forgive as Christ forgave us. We quote Jesus’ words to Peter not to forgive his brother only seven times, “but seventy times seven.” This is what we say, but is this how we live?

The cast of Dead Man Walking isn’t living in a world of easy answers. They’ve read the book, they’ve studied the crimes, and they’ve looked straight into the evil this crime represents. All of us are asking hard questions: Is reconciliation always the answer? Is forgiveness possible no matter what the crime? What is rectified when we kill another human being? Soon our audience will grapple with these questions alongside us. Most crimes are committed in secrecy, in darkness, in the privacy of a home or the seclusion of a remote location. Likewise, executions in America are carried out in the middle of the night by people whose identities are rigorously hidden from public view. Dead Man Walking brings the crime and the punishment center stage. We witness it in a space that invites civic engagement. This kind of theatre asks us to confront our Christian beliefs as a community of believers. It is my prayer that the production of this play will invite loving conversations about our individual and collective responsibilities to forgiveness and reconciliation in our world today.


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