A couple of interesting statistics before we get started: there are about 2,843 people on death rows in the United States, including 154 of them in North Carolina and 63 of them in Federal prisons. In 2016, according to a May 2017 article published by The Sentencing Project of Washington, DC, there were 162,000 people serving “life sentences,” including nearly 53,300 people serving “life-without-parole sentences,” plus more than 44,000 people serving “virtual life sentences,” because they have more time left than they will likely live to serve.
Six very accomplished actors created a chillingly real death-row pod on stage last night in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre of PlayMakers Repertory Company. A pod is a unit in which, frequently, six men reside. There are usually several pods on the death row in those prisons where court-ordained executions occur. I have to believe that the actors had the opportunity to mingle with some lifers and some death-row inmates as preparation for their roles. There are gestures and language nuances which only come first hand.
“Chillingly,” as I wrote above, does not mean scary. It means “eerie” or “surprisingly”, because the most outstanding sense of reality that radiated from the stage was that of the pure humanity of these guys. They love each other, perforce, because they live together. These are not the prisoners of Hollywood movies or HBO’s Oz; but rather the broken, surviving, love-starved, paradoxically hopeful refuse of social problems that haunt us every day. They reach out to each other, they share their lives together, their pasts, their mistakes, their onetime desires, their families — some achingly hateful, some puzzlingly loving.
I cannot believe anyone in the audience did not find a tinge of warmth, a grudging respect for the strength that these actors show of the lives of men (and women) in prison. It is a remarkable performance.
Playwright Lynden Harris founded Hidden Voices in 2003, precisely to give voice to those parts of our society who are seldom heard, but often completely misunderstood by many. She does her work incredibly well. She has collected information from its very source and translated it into its rawest, most basic meaning: human beings are human.
Director Kathryn Hunter-Williams has created a kinship with Harris that ripples with the sense of her experiences in the prisons. The blocking, the sudden changes of role when the actors assume characters their fellow “deathers” — why not, they aren’t “lifers?” — create past experiences with parents or street-compatriots or cops.
The entire one-act play takes place from morning wake-up to evening turning-in. The audience lives the prisoners’ day with them. There is no violence; there are no serious altercations; there is no uncontrollable insanity; there is a family of men with one predominant similarity — they will all be killed by the state sometime.
This is a completely ensemble performance, with Chris Berry playing “Kansas City,” Brian D. Coats as the elderly “Long Beach,” Jeffrey Blair Cornell doing a fine Down East accent as “Maine,” Gil Faison as the wisecracking “Brownsville,” Richard McDonald creating “Whitehouse,” and Edward O’Blenis as “Richmond.” Choice work by all makes this a most watchable show that may surprise you but will not disappoint anyone. This show needs to be seen. It will certainly be enjoyed.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 23rd Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/incarcerated-voices-speak-through-two-current-theater-productions-count-and-conversations-with-hitler/Content?oid=7553554; and Aug. 10th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with playwright Lynden Harris, director Kathryn Hunter-Williams, and actors Brian D. Coats and Chris Berry, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/men-death-row-write-their-truths-count#stream/0. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 23rd Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell and the Aug. 24th review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/08/on-aug-23-27-at-unc-lynden-harris-count-will-depict-a-day-in-the-life-of-six-men-on-death-row/ and http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/08/lynden-harris-count-is-an-engaging-new-play-set-on-a-maximum-security-prisons-death-row/, respectively.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company and Hidden Voices present COUNT: STORIES FROM AMERICA’S DEATH ROWS, a world premiere written by Lynden Harris and directed by Kathryn Hunter-Williams, at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24-26 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 27 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15-$48 ($10 UNC students with valid photo ID).
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://tickets.playmakersrep.org/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=10912.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: After each performance, there will be an audience talkback with the cast and creative team and selected subject-matter experts. Please click here and scroll down to view the theme of each talkback and the names of the talkback panelists for that talkback.
Lynden Harris (playwright and founder of Hidden Voices): https://www.facebook.com/lynden.harris (Facebook page) and http://www.themonti.org/storytellers/lynden-harris (The Monti bio).
Kathryn Hunter-Williams (director, associate director for Hidden Voices, and associate professor of Literature in the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Dramatic Art): https://playmakersrep.org/artists/kathryn-hunter-williams/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://drama.unc.edu/faculty-member/kathryn-hunter-williams/ (UNC bio), and https://www.facebook.com/kathryn.hunterwilliams (Facebook page).
Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on Amazon.com. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori previously reviewed theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of Chuck Galle’s previews and reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.