Sister Helen Prejean spoke with ETHS students on April 15, 2016 about her work with advocacy, the death penalty, and victims’ support.
Students and staff from Evanston Township High School (ETHS) are part of an expansive public programming initiative, the Quality of Mercy Project, which invites the community to discuss issues such as forgiveness, compassion, the death penalty, mass incarceration, racial inequity, and social justice. These complex issues and themes surface in the play Dead Man Walking, the centerpiece of the project and a spring 2016 production of the Piven Theatre Workshop.
The Quality of Mercy Project is a collaboration among five key community partners: The Chicago Innocence Center, Evanston Art Center, Literature for All of Us, James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, and Evanston Township High School. Each week during the run of Dead Man Walking (April 14 - May 15), Piven Theatre Workshop will highlight the work of one of its featured partners. ETHS student voice and perspective will be the focus of the May 5-8 presentations at Piven, with a special “talk-back” session on Saturday, May 7 following the 7:30pm performance of Dead Man Walking.
Based on the national bestseller, Dead Man Walking tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean’s journey through our system of capital punishment. Through the lens of her role as spiritual advisor to a death row inmate, the play Dead Man Walking meditates on the deeper issues of justice and mercy and the implication of our involvement in the human consequences of our justice system: the condemned, the bereaved, the executed, the executioner, the individual, and our community.
Throughout the rehearsal process, students in ETHS’ History and Social Science classes engaged in extensive research and inquiry about themes present in Dead Man Walking, in order to inform and enhance the production design elements of the show. The talk-back includes a number of student leaders discussing what it was like to research Louisiana prisons, the history of the death penalty in America, and more. The ticket price for the May 7 performance is $35, with $5 from each ticket going to support ETHS programming.
The programming partnerships of the Quality of Mercy Project have uncovered innovative ways to bring communities together behind the scenes as well. With a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation, ETHS teachers were able to develop new curriculum in history, social science, English and government classes for the 2015-16 school year based on the themes of Dead Man Walking. Throughout the school year, students have read new texts, developed and written poetry, debated the death penalty, and participated in efforts to enhance the production at Piven.
In addition, an activism boot camp is being developed for ETHS students to help ensure that youth voices are heard in the wider community. For the public, free community programming is offered at various venues in Evanston and other nearby locations to foster conversations at the local level.
Cast members in Dead Man Walking include ETHS sophomore Kenneth Martin (playing Jim Poncelet) and ETHS Safety staff member James Anthony Zoccoli (playing Hilton Barber). ETHS freshman Lily Bond also worked side-by-side with Piven’s costume designer to learn the development and design of creating characters’ looks throughout the production of the play.
The real-life story of Sister Helen Prejean inspired the film and play “Dead Man Walking” which is presented at the Piven Theatre April 16 – May 15, 2016. (Photo by Chris Zoubris)