A week ago I saw the Eugene Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. The story is well known, thanks to the 1995 movie. Sister Helen is asked to be the spiritual advisor of a man on death row at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. There is no doubt that the man – here called Joseph de Rocher – is guilty of a particularly horrific murder. He claims he is innocent. Sister Helen works to get him to admit his guilt and seek forgiveness. This forgiveness comes both from God and from the family of his victim, and the theme of forgiveness is less religious than based on universal values and emotions.
The opera, wonderfully acted and sung by the leads Janis Kelly and Michael Mayes, was powerful and moving. Heggie’s music, tonal rather than abstract, carried the story and its emotions effectively, with hints of jazz and rock and a folkish hymn that threads through the work. Michael Mayes, his body pumped up and tattooed, his gait hunched and splay-footed, showed us Joe de Rocher before he ever opened his mouth. The only false note was in the execution scene, when de Rocher is posed against a wall with outstretched arms, a forced and unnecessary evocation of Christ.
The last wish of de Rocher’s mother is that he be allowed to have the cookies she baked for him. We don’t hear about his last meal. But the Corvallis artist Julie Green has, in her series “The Last Supper,” painted over 500 plates with images of the last meals of death row inmates. I saw them at the Corvallis Arts Center last month, where I took these pictures. Most of them, like Mrs. de Rocher’s cookies, are painfully banal: cheeseburgers, pizza, fried chicken, French fries, ice cream. Occasionally the prisoner refuses a meal; one requested only “God’s word.” Painted in blue on found plates, Green’s series gives the date of execution and the state, and the description of the meal as provided by the Department of Corrections. The plates form a sorrowful parade of mundane wishes. Green aims to add fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished in all fifty states; it has been abolished in 17 states plus the District of Columbia, but the vast majority of executions since 1976 (when the death penalty was reinstated after a brief hiatus) have taken place in Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma. (The Death Penalty Information Center gives full background.)
Green’s work makes no overt statement about the death penalty, but like Dead Man Walking, it forcefully expresses the essential humanity of even those we deem the worst among us. It challenges the idea that we can, or should, legally kill others as a form of punishment.