NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Dead Man Walking began as a memoir and a reflection on capital punishment and the rights of murder victims’ families by Sister Helen Prejean. In 1995, director Tim Robbins turned Dead Man Walking into a major motion picture, and in 2002, Robbins adapted it as a stage play now being performed by hundreds of high schools, colleges and universities across the country—including, this month, Bethel College.
Dead Man Walking tells of Prejean’s own “walk with” a Louisiana death row inmate through his execution. Robbins and Prejean started the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project in an attempt to get voting-age students to engage in a dialogue about the issue of capital punishment.
When J.E. Johnson, a former student of John McCabe-Juhnke, Bethel College professor of communication arts, told him about the project, McCabe-Juhnke thought it was something Bethel should be involved in.
“When I read the information, I got excited about Bethel entering the nationwide dialogue on the death penalty,” McCabe-Juhnke said. “This is the kind of theater we should be doing here.”
April 27-29, Bethel College students will take part in this national theater program—but not without first fulfilling some stipulations.
Robbins and Prejean require that schools using the script incorporate discussion of the text or of the death penalty into at least three different disciplines. Therefore, Ami Regier, associate professor of English, is using the book as a text for her Contemporary American Literature class and Brett Dewey, assistant professor of Bible and religion, for his Nonviolence Theory and Practice class. On Monday, April 24, there will be a convocation called “A conversation about the death penalty” at 11 a.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium of the Fine Arts Center.
McCabe-Juhnke believes the play will raise a diverse range of questions for students and community members to discuss. “Is death ever a justifiable punishment? Is justice achievable? Is any human beyond the touch of grace?”
The play will show in Krehbiel Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on three nights, April 27-29. Offender-Victim Ministries of Harvey County is a cooperating in the production. OVM executive director Libby Schrag will be a resource person for talk-backs after each performance.
McCabe-Juhnke is directing Dead Man Walking. Technical director is Tim Buller, Bethel College assistant professor of system administration, and stage manager is Lindsey Miller, senior from Haven. Lead characters are Shawn Rath, junior from Moundridge, as Matthew Poncelet, and Caitlin Buerge, sophomore from Kansas City, Mo., as Sister Helen Prejean.
The other 38 named characters are played by an ensemble of actors: Justin Bowie, junior from Fontana, Calif.; Angela Carriker, senior from Colby; Amy Castle, junior from Gardner; Darryl Diltz, junior from St. Louis; Adam Gabriel, sophomore from Monrovia, Calif.; Allen Harpool, freshman from Sedgwick; Kurtzs Holbert, senior from Fort Worth, Texas; Heidi Johnson, junior from Topeka; Emily Kerbs, junior from Newton; Kate Larson, sophomore from Clay Center; Jonathan Nathan, sophomore from McPherson; Tobias Ruhle, junior from Wuppertal, Germany; Charles Schrag, sophomore from Freeman, S.D.; Neil Smucker, Northridge Elementary School student from North Newton; Michael Voth, freshman from Topeka; Josh Warkentine, freshman from Wichita; Kristin Watson-Drennen, junior from Lyons; and Lucas Wiegert, sophomore from Sylvan Grove.
Tickets for adults are $8 and tickets for seniors over age 65 and children ages 3-12 are $6. Parents should be aware that the play contains strong language and adult situations. For tickets, stop by Thresher Bookstore in the Schultz Student Center Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m. or call (316) 284-5205.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.