Monday, December 04, 2006

Student play explores death penalty

By Vianna Davila
The last words on the convicted killer's lips were, "I love you."

A crowd hovered around him as he prepared to die by injection — the ghosts of the teenage couple he killed; the parents determined to avenge their deaths; and the nun who pledged to be with him as he was executed.

This scene from an execution chamber is being evoked at Providence High School, where, for the past two months, students have been preparing to perform "Dead Man Walking." The show, which also includes Central Catholic High School students, opens tonight.

The play tells the story of death-penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean and the spiritual journey she takes with Matthew Poncelet, a Louisiana death row inmate convicted of murdering teenagers Walter Delacroix and Hope Percy the night they graduated from their Louisiana high school.

Prejean will be at Providence High School on Monday to speak about her work.

The play asks the audience to consider the ultimate act of violence and the price of the death penalty.

It's heavy stuff for the teenage cast members, half of whom performed in the school's production of the musical "The Wiz" last spring.

"At first it seemed really odd and like something we really shouldn't do in high school," said Adrian Bates, 15, the sophomore who plays Prejean. "We've felt some real emotions now that we have gotten into it."

Like the majority of her classmates, Adrian doesn't know anyone in prison, let alone on death row. She is among those who came to the play with strong opinions about the death penalty.

It's "wrong to kill no matter what," she said.

Others are struggling with what they think. That's what Tim Robbins, the actor and director who adapted Prejean's memoir for his movie — also called "Dead Man Walking" — intended when he adapted it again as a play for high school and college students around the country to perform.

Central High School junior Matthew Flores, who helped design the show's lighting, was against the death penalty until a friend's sister was murdered.

Now, he's struggling with the issue again.

"I'm so confused, I don't know which way is up," he said.

A tough issue

"I actually felt like it happened to me," said Jocelyn Stewart, the freshman playing Hope Percy. "I know it's not the actual feeling, but it's close."

The murders are based on those committed by two death-row inmates Prejean counseled in Louisiana, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Willie. The character Poncelet is a composite of both men.

In the play, Poncelet and an accomplice kidnap Delacroix and Percy from a darkened lover's lane. Delacroix is shot twice in the head. Percy is raped and stabbed 17 times.

Poncelet refuses to admit to the murders, demanding a lie detector test so he can prove to his mother that he's innocent. Only in one of the final scenes does Poncelet confess his role to Prejean.

Darrell Martin, technical director for the school, fired an e-mail to other faculty when he learned about the production.

"From an educational standpoint, it didn't bother me," Martin said. "But from a personal standpoint, I wanted them to see the victim's side of the story."

Victims' rights groups have protested against Prejean.

"She's been very compassionate with them," said Maureen Fenlon, national director for the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. "She can understand their pain."

To prepare for the role of Poncelet's mother, Lucille, sophomore Yasmin Abu-Al-Jaibat, watched programs about prison. She asked questions her mother never expected: Mom, if I go to prison will you come to visit me?

"This is not a conversation (Yasmin) and I would have had before," said Angela Rodriguez, Yasmin's mom.

The play doesn't require the audience to decide what it thinks of the death penalty, Fenlon said. It asks the question, why?

"In the story nobody is getting away without suffering with some aspect of what happened," Fenlon said.

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