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Lynden Harris’ Count Is an Engaging New Play, Set on a Maximum-Security Prison’s Death Row

PlayMakers Rep mainstay Jeffrey Blair Cornell (left) stars as Maine in Count (photo by HuthPhoto)

PlayMakers Rep mainstay Jeffrey Blair Cornell (left) stars as Maine in Count (photo by HuthPhoto)

Last night, PlayMakers Repertory Company opened its 2017-18 season with Count: Stories from America’s Death Rows, an engaging new play written by Lynden Harris and directed by Kathryn Hunter-Williams. This world premiere is a PRC2 second-stage production in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre on University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. Count, which is co-produced by Hidden Voices, is set in a maximum-security prison; and the action takes place on New Years’ Eve on death row. (Note: The script is based on actual writings by and conversations with death-row inmates across the USA, and it gives a very enlightening glimpse into the lives of such men.)

A robotic voice over the intercom announces the various structured events of the day: “Count” (when the prisoners call out their serial number, so that the authorities can “take inventory”), “Breakfast,” “Meds” (when they are given medication — we were not surprised that they all suffered from PTSD), “Canteen” (when they have the privilege of spending some of their meager earnings on high-priced treats), and so on. The prisoners respond by lining up and going through the necessary motions.

The cast of Count by Lynden Harris includes (from left) Chris Berry as Kansas City, Richard McDonald as Whitehouse, Gil Faison as Brownsville, and Brian D. Coates as Long Beach (photo by HuthPhoto)

The cast of Count by Lynden Harris includes (from left) Chris Berry as Kansas City, Richard McDonald as Whitehouse, Gil Faison as Brownsville, and Brian D. Coates as Long Beach (photo by HuthPhoto)

Between these regimented events, we are invited into each prisoner’s mind as their random conversations lead to spotlighted monologues in which an individual tells part of his life story while others play “supporting roles” in the story and/or supply sound effects for them.

Through these anecdotes, we learn about the choices made by these men (and the choices that were forced upon them) that led them to where they are now spending their final days, months, years …. There is irony in the playwright’s choice to set the play on New Year’s Eve — these men have no “new year” ahead of them, and they are unable to participate in the celebration that is shared across our culture.

Director Kathryn Hunter-Williams has assembled a cast (composed mostly of newcomers to PlayMakers) that does an amazing job. There is a degree of diversity among the characters, and it is of interest that the names given to these men are place names.

Count stars Jeffrey Blair Cornell (left) as Maine and Gil Faison as Brownsville (photo by HuthPhoto)

Count stars Jeffrey Blair Cornell (left) as Maine and Gil Faison as Brownsville (photo by HuthPhoto)

Chris Berry plays Kansas City, a white inmate with a shaved head. We half-expected him to show elements of a skinhead personality, and we were relieved when he did not.

Brian D. Coats plays Long Beach, an older black inmate who tells one of the others: “I been here since before you were born.” Having immersed himself in literature and philosophy, he quotes liberally from the likes of Voltaire and Shakespeare.

Jeffrey Blair Cornell, the only PlayMakers Rep veteran in the cast, plays Maine. A white inmate, he is the only “Yankee” among them. There is a cute “I don’t have an accent” bit that gets a laugh onstage as well as off.

Gil Faison’s character, Brownsville, is black. Richmond (played by Edward O’Blenis) is a black Muslim. Whitehouse, played by Richard McDonald, is Native American. The play shows their struggles to imbue their lives with meaning and to cling to their identities. We see them as they voice varying degrees of hope and faith, and we see their dependence on each other and their need to trust each other. Especially poignant were the references to other inmates who (for various reasons) are no longer with them on death row.

Edward O'Blenis (right) stars as Richmond in Count (photo by HuthPhoto)

Edward O’Blenis (right) stars as Richmond in Count (photo by HuthPhoto)

As mentioned above, each actor plays a variety of other roles in the vignettes conjured up by the inmates’ anecdotal monologues. At times, they play a mother, a father, a brother, a drug dealer, a police officer, etc. Changes in voice and posture make these supporting roles quite believable. Of special interest: Cornell plays an extended role as a hero’s “sidekick.”

McKay Coble’s set is simple yet effective. It consists of six individual stools and a prison-style table with six seats.

Costume designer Jennifer Guadagno has clothed the men in authentic prison jumpsuits. Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting design effectively highlights each of the anecdotal scenes that emerge and shades the various moods appropriately. And sound designer Adam Bintz supplies the authentic prison sounds.

Because part of PRC2‘s mission is to encourage discussion of the issues touched on by the play, there is a talkback following each performance; an insert in the program gives the bios of the panelists who will be participating on each evening. The panel on Wednesday, Aug. 23th’s, opening-night performance consisted of two UNC law professors: Michael J. Gerhardt and Erika K. Wilson and two members of the N.C. House of Representatives: Chaz Beazley (D-Mecklenburg) and Graig R. Meyer (D-Durham/Orange).

We found the play and the talkback to be quite engaging, and we heartily recommend both. Count: Stories from America’s Death Rows is co-produced by Hidden Voices, a collective founded by playwright Lynden Harris, which describes itself as “a radically inclusive, participatory, and co-creative collective committed to creating just, compassionate, and sustainable relationships.” Count plays through Aug. 27th, with nightly performances at 7:30 p.m. and a 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, Aug. 27th.

The cast members of Count play a variety of death-row inmates (photo by HuthPhoto)

The cast members of Count play a variety of death-row inmates (photo by HuthPhoto)

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 Chuck Galle, 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/counts-six-highly-skilled-actors-create-a-chillingly-real-death-row-pod-at-prc/, 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, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://tickets.playmakersrep.org/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=10912.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.

SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/show/count/, http://hiddenvoices.org/pod/event/premier-of-count-at-prc, and https://www.facebook.com/events/113581789277928/.

PRESENTERS:

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/.

Hidden Voices: http://hiddenvoices.org/, https://www.facebook.com/HiddenVoices/, and https://twitter.com/HiddenVoicesUS.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/kenan.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

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.

OTHER LINKS:

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).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

 

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews