Death Penalty's Prism

Despite the calls for vengeance, Coyote examines the sad, soulful truth about state-sponsored executions.

The Curious Theatre Company's Coyote on a Fence is an artful, high-minded attempt to address the issue of the death penalty.

As I watched the play last Saturday, at the end of a week filled with fear and confusion, sodden with grief, it was comforting to be in a place filled with people concerned about issues of public policy. Henry Lowenstein sat at the end of my row. When he ran BoBan's Cabaret in the '80s, Lowenstein, a Holocaust survivor, sought out previously unknown actors, writers and directors, often in Denver's minority communities. Many of his productions dealt with such serious topics as apartheid and poverty; they were, nonetheless, often filled with affirmation and joy. There was a gospel singer in one of them whose remembered voice still quickens my breath. At the time, I wanted her to sing and sing and never stop singing.

While there is much feeling in Coyote on a Fence, on the whole the play distances us from its protagonists, working more at the level of intellect than of emotion. At first this struck me as problematic. Coyote doesn't have the impact of tragedy; it doesn't provide the sorrow, the shock, the moment of catharsis. We don't shudder in anticipation as one of the convicts approaches his death date; we don't weep when we realize he's died. But on later reflection, this seemed more a strength than a weakness. This is not a play that cheapens or exploits its material. Besides, we brought to it minds already over-excited by the events of the week: the deaths, the calls for an apocalyptic war against evil, the media mixture of genuine emotion and sentimentality, the loss of all sense of the world as a safe and compassionate place. We didn't need more emotion. We needed context. We needed to think. We needed a way to contemplate ultimate questions.

Gene Gillette is riveting as a skinhead sentenced to death in Coyote on a Fence.
Gene Gillette is riveting as a skinhead sentenced to death in Coyote on a Fence.


Presented by the Curious Theatre Company
through October 27, 303-623-0524
Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street

Because of all this, I saw the play as if someone had slipped a transparency over a map, darkening known territory, illuminating areas that had been in shadow. I expected to confront the usual questions about the death penalty: Does it deter crime? Does it comfort the victims' families? Is it cost-effective? Is it equally enforced, or are minority people and the poor executed in disproportionate numbers? How often are innocent people put to death, and how much does the public care? As a society, should we be more committed to revenge or to forgiveness? These questions arose, particularly in the attorney-led discussion after the performance. But I think most of us also found ourselves contemplating something deeper and almost inexpressible, something that touched on what it means to be human.

The set for Coyote on a Fence is a series of boxes. Two condemned men, John Brennan (Terry Burnsed) and Bobby Reyburn (Gene Gillette), occupy side-by-side cells. Above them is the meshed yard where they're allowed an hour's recreation a day; they're still fenced off from each other, but a ball can fly over the fence that divides them. A small square on the stage's upper level represents a bar where prison guard Shawna DuChamps (Judy Phelan-Hill) -- who gets $34 every time she volunteers for execution duty -- submits to a media interview, pieces of which are shown throughout the play. Opposite this, in a second raised square, a New York Times reporter (Chris Reid) conducts occasional interviews with Brennan. The reporter has heard of him through a death-row newspaper the inmate edits that features the obituaries of those executed. The central action of the play is simplicity itself: Like all of us, Brennan and Reyburn wait for death; in their case, however, the dates have been set and the deaths will be deliberately administered.

Brennan is an educated man, a onetime psychologist, sentenced to death for the murder of a drug dealer. He says that he's innocent. He brings a withering clarity to prison life, its cruelties and evasions. Reyburn is a member of the Aryan Nations, babbling endlessly about mud people and the Jewish cabal that runs the country. His crime was to block the door of a black church with his truck and then set fire to the building, murdering 37 people, many of them children. Police found him sitting outside with his gasoline can, watching the flames.

Despite his loathing for Reyburn's crime, Brennan finds himself coming to care for the man himself, who's emotionally a puppyish four-year-old and possessed of a blank and terrible innocence. He learns that Reyburn endured all the childhood sufferings with which the press has made us so drearily familiar: Born with fetal-alcohol poisoning to a fifteen-year-old mother, beaten and abused, institutionalized and raped within the institution, Reyburn eventually found love and complete acceptance in the Aryan Nations.

Reyburn wants to contribute something to Brennan's newspaper, and Brennan tries to teach him coherence, lecturing like an English teacher about thesis and supporting arguments. But even as he tries to wean Reyburn from the lies that both nourished and devastated him, Brennan himself struggles with truth. His obituaries skirt or minimize their subjects' crimes; his rationale is that these inmates' deaths should be recorded somewhere with acceptance and without blame. Filled with rage at the institution of capital punishment, determined ultimately to cheat the executioner, Brennan can't look at the evil in himself, or in the men he has come to identify with and care about.

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