In a world premiere production, PlayMakers Repertory Company has joined with NC's Hidden Voices to bring a brand new play, Count, to the stage. Written by Lynden Harris, who founded Hidden Voices, Count depicts the day-to-day monotony and struggle to survive in a special cellblock for death row inmates in a state prison.
Death row inmates are not housed in the general population cellblocks; they are kept separately in a block of their own. While this is done supposedly for their own protection, it also allows for these six inmates to become intimately familiar with each other's lives. Performed on a set specifically designed to be cramped and always visible, these six inmates live out their lives with each other always underfoot, and always talking. Talking, it seems, is the only way they have of keeping each other sane.
Harris collected the data she uses for her play over years of working with those who are underrepresented in our society. Of all the men imprisoned in state and federal prisons, the few who are waiting on death row are the most forgotten of our population. For the most part, even their families have stopped coming to visit. Harris uses six characters to represent the men on this particular cellblock, men who have stopped even using their names. To the authorities, they are numbers. To each other, where they come from is more important than what their parents named them. So we come to know them by their location.
All six wear identical coveralls, bright red, with white t-shirts underneath and white sneakers. Each has his own cell, depicted by a small square barely large enough to sit on, lining the stage on each side, in two rows of three, front to back. Their lives are controlled by a loudspeaker, which announces what they are to be doing at any given time. It is a regimen that has itself become boring, because it is the same every single day.
These six are, of course, dissimilar, coming from all over the country and of multiple races: two are white, three are black, one Hispanic. But the details of their lives, even though in very different locales, are amazingly similar. All are from the very low end of the economic scale. All have been in and out of trouble since they were very small, some from stealing, some from selling drugs (beginning at the age of five), and some simply from being unable to keep a roof over their heads. And universally, these men have suffered abuse, from everyone they have ever encountered: loved ones, neighbors, stepparents, and especially from the local police force, who long ago labeled these indigents "trouble."
There is Long Beach (Brian D. Coats), a black man who has been there the longest, since before two of his fellows were even born. As a young teen, convinced his torturing father was actually going to kill him, he burned down their apartment with Dad still inside. There is Kansas City (Chris Berry), a man with a very deep wound, psychologically: he has never been allowed to hold his only son, who was born after he had been sentenced to prison. Maine (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) – he's never even said where in Maine he's from – is older and more educated than the others, except possibly Long Beach; he has a long list of quotes he presents to describe the lives they are living. Brownsville (Gil Faison) was old by age six; he was already selling and had been subject to gun violence, robbed at gunpoint for his watch and small change at age five. Whitehouse (Richard McDonald) is Hispanic; his race and poverty had condemned him from birth. Richmond (Edward O'Blenis) grew up in a family, but guns and drugs were a part of it from the beginning.
These men tell their stories to each other and thus to us. Their cramped set is flanked by audience on three sides, representing the confined space in which they live. As each story unfolds, other members of the cast play out characters in the narrative, from mothers and grandmothers, to cops who handcuff and beat their suspects simply because they are suspects. These men talk to us as their day progresses, always governed by that loudspeaker. And always, there is the Count, which constantly insists they declare they are still here, still confined.
This ensemble team is tight, enmeshed, intimately familiar with each other and their characters, and easily switch from their own main characters to others, and back again, in the blink of an eye and with amazing clarity. We also learn about their ongoing situations, whether or not they have accepted life without parole over death at some indeterminable time. How it affects them when another inmate goes to meet his death. And the many ways in which the government controls their lives: GED education, medication, janitorial duties, bed checks; sometimes the Count comes at 3:00 am. All of these men are controlled by medication; to a man, they have been diagnosed with PTSD: post traumatic stress disorder. These men are bored, they are neglected, they are forgotten. They have become their own family, for they no longer have anyone else.
This show is difficult to watch. Its themes are stark, these men are degraded, and their lives are, essentially, over. "Dead men walking" – though the phrase is never spoken – screams from the stage. But this depiction is powerful, engrossing, and extremely educational. "Scared straight" may apply to all who view this stunning work, for it describes a place where none of us would ever hope to be found. This is a professional production, polished, dynamic, and riveting. Director Kathryn Hunter-Williams has molded another original PRC production that is captivating even in its terrible reality. For men like these, all across the country, the word is, unmistakably, "forgotten."
Count continues through Sunday, August 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.