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Hidden Voices, the "radically inclusive" non-profit that makes collaborative theatre in an effort to remake this world into "a just, compassionate, and sustainable world," is conducting staged readings of its newest script, Count, as part of The Process Series at UNC-Chapel Hill. The second of these readings will occur March 4, prior to fine-tuning the script for its staged premiere at PlayMakers Rep, as the opening show in the 2017-18 PRC2 series, August 23-27. The staged reading is a chance to get to know the work a little before seeing it staged – which is not a bad idea, as the play is so jam-packed with stories, feelings, and conundrums that one time through will not be enough to grasp all its points.
Count is made from stories that Hidden Voices' Lynden Harris and Kathryn Hunter-Williams have collected from men on Death Rows over the past three-and-a-half years. Harris crafted the script from thousands of pages of transcripts; Hunter-Williams has directed the cast of six men representing the inmates, and the one reading the stage directions and the intercom calls that punctuate prison days.
Be warned: many of the stories are horrifying, sickening. I have no doubt of their veracity, but at the same time, while hearing them, I could barely believe that I lived on the same planet, let alone the same country, as the people described. Hidden Voices is more interested in what led up to the crimes that put these men on Death Row than in the crimes themselves (or the victims of those crimes). It's more concerned with the gross inhumanity of these men's treatment by law enforcement and prison as it exists here and now than with painting a picture of what might be possible. The men talk about who they are (using a familiar Hidden Voices trope that lets people draw around themselves with imagery such as, "I come from my grandmother's biscuits.") and what happened to them – they are presented as victims themselves – but never about the acts they committed that landed them in this hell.
The litany of demeaning words and degrading treatment – of torture, abuse, neglect, hunger, drugs, poverty, longing, pain, rejection, confusion, and give-it-all valor – would be completely overwhelming had not Harris included moments of epiphany, humor, and great kindness – the latter occurring in the final society these men will know, and perhaps the only one they have really known. They are good to each other. "Irony" is not a strong enough word for it – Death Row has habilitated them.
Yet the questions still remain: What could be a just punishment for murder? How can we as a society do this hard thing better? There has to be a better way.
The reading is carried out by some well-known local talent, and one young man new to me – Bobby Simcox plays Whitehouse (they all have prison names), who came from, "The only good Injun is a dead Injun." Phillip Bernard Smith plays Brownsville; Jeffery Blair Cornell plays Maine; Thaddeus Edwards is Kansas City; Thomasi McDonald is Long Beach or LB; and Nilan Johnson plays Richmond, while Sonny Kelly barks out the orders. While there were a few small glitches, obviously they have all worked this material. In terms of eliciting compassion for those on Death Row, they are tremendously effective, as is Count. For despite everything that has happened, been done to, and done by them, the play and the players force us to see the men as humans, like us, rather than numbers to be counted.
This stage reading of Count repeats tonight, March 4. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.