By: Cherrelle Marable
Director Russell Vandenbroucke did an outstanding job recreating Tim Robbins’s play “Dead Man Walking,” based on the book of the same name, by Sister Helen Prejean. The play, which premiered at U of L’s Thrust Theater on Jan. 29, centered on a major controversial issue in the United States: the death penalty. The play conquered the unenviable task of showing various views of capital punishment, and did not suggest that the writer of the play may have felt a certain way. In fact, the play was completely unbiased and allowed the audience to make their own judgment, based on the situation at hand.
“Dead Man Walking” takes us on an uneasy, troublesome, and essentially spiritual journey, lead by the two main characters: Matthew Poncelet (portrayed by David Galloway) and Sr. Helen Prejean (portrayed by Megg Ward). Matthew Poncelet is a man awaiting execution for the rape and murder of Hope Percy and Walter Delacroix, two teenagers on Lovers Lane. Helen Prejean is a nun, known for tutoring and helping the children living in a populated, black New Orleans housing project. Forgoing her work in her faith, she agrees to serve as spiritual counselor to Poncelet as he awaits execution.
Prejean’s love for Poncelet, a convicted murderer on death row, astonished her peers. Helping a man accused of murdering a young, innocent couple made the parents of the victims feel betrayed as they wanted to see Poncelet dead. Sister Prejean showed compassion, love and kindness for the accused killer, up to the end, where he finally confessed his role in the young couples tragic death, and later dies by lethal injection.
The set design of the play was magnificent! The play takes place at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in Angola, 1984; the costumes of the characters made the audience feel like they were in the same time period. Little props, designed to go along with the play, also allowed the audience to follow along with them, creating a sense of consistency from scene to scene.
Ward captivated the audience as her character Sr. Helen Prejean and Galloway did a superb job as Matthew Poncelet. Ward’s authentic accent actually had me actually believing she was from New Orleans. Overall, the entire cast did an amazing job. Watching Ward and Galloway interacting on stage made one feel like they were actually a part of the story, experiencing the emotional rollercoaster the two endured and dealing with the controversial and complicated issues of capital punishment.
The entire cast consisted of 18 actors portraying nearly 50 different characters. Senior, Tamara Kamara is a double major in Theater and French, who portrayed four entirely different characters. Her roles were: Hope, murder victim and girlfriend of Walter, Emily-Hopes’ sister, a guard, and a support victim.
“A lot of hard work and dedication went into this play, we had less than two months to prepare, but we had countless numbers of rehearsals where we were able to learn our roles ” explained Kamara; she continued, “I hope the audience appreciates the art of theater, and the message of the story is conveying.”
Director Vandenbroucke believes “theater is a place where a group of people can sit in a room and communicate important issues to the audience;” he goes on to say “that the issues of capital punishment have been happening for a long time. In the play we see how violence affects the victim’s families, (The Delacroix family and the Percy family), and we also see how violence affects the family of Matthew Poncelet. Where does the violence end once it begins? The cycle of violence is never ending.” He continued: “I am grateful for the university, and the department that understands the importance of theater and how important it was to work on the play, Dead Man Walking.”
Clearly, Dead Man Walking has made a huge impact on theater lovers:
“This is the first time ever seeing ‘Dead Man Walking’ and I have to say, I was so touched. When Poncelet was confessing his part in the murders, you could hear the remorse in his voice and see the guilt on his face. I felt compassion for this character; I wanted someone to give him a second chance. All the characters did such a phenomenal job that with each scene, I felt like I was feeling what they were feeling”, remarked audience member Nikka Norman, a junior at Spalding University. “One of the best plays I have seen at the University of Louisville” said Louisville resident, and fellow audience member, Deborah Williams. I would definitely encourage those who have not seen the play, to go see it next time you have the opportunity, because it is worth experiencing.