Dead Man Talking
Kenny Carnes's Last Words wouldn't play well in the rest of the theatergoing world. A one-man show examining the human side of the death penalty, it simply wouldn't make sense. Most countries with happening theater scenes don't kill their prisoners.
This one does, though: More than 1,000 people have been put to death in the United States since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty; 22 of them were juvenile offenders. This makes us the fourth-most execution-happy nation, just ahead of Pakistan. In the USA, a play like Carnes's is no mere philosophical inquiry.
It's an ugly thing to face, and at first glance, Carnes does not seem like the man to help us face it. He's a little flaky, frankly — the kind of guy who might cure your appendicitis by balancing your chakras and force-feeding you wheatgrass through a straw. Noting his predilection for new-age cant, I began counting the number of times he used various permutations of the word transformation in a recent interview, and got bored when I hit double digits. Speaking about the themes of his work, he insisted all stories are really "the same story" (totally plausible!) and discussed a new project about the links between world culture, environmental devastation, and misogyny (tenuous!). Environmental devastation is due to mankind's neglect of "the sacred feminine," he explained: "The male energy is oppressive to the female energy, and if I abuse my female-wife, I abuse the feminine in myself."
I asked him: "So you're talking about the connection between date rape and oil derricks?"
"Right!" he said, laughing. "Exactly!" And he insisted the two were one and the same.
So there's a certain neopagan effervescence to Carnes's philosophy, a slight posthippie tinge to his thinking, that an uncharitable mind might consider proof that he lacks the grittiness necessary for a real mano-a-mano showdown with America's crazy bloodlust. And although Carnes is an agreeable fellow — smart, friendly, and fluffy, like a collie — I was almost one of them.
Last Words came about because of a double dose of existential angst Carnes was forced to deal with in 2001, when he relocated from New York City to Narraganset Bay, Rhode Island, to take care of his ailing dad. His father died, and then came 9/11. Being a playwright, Carnes felt compelled to confront the diffuse sorrow that suddenly effected his life and the lives of so many others — and the central problem, he decided, was all bound up with the idea of mortality. "Looking at mortality in myself," he says, "and the violence, and perhaps the ugliness around, I thought, Hey — death row."
So he arrived at his subject via a sort of back door — which might be the only way to arrive at it if you don't want to wind up preachy — and then did all the right groundwork. He read transcripts and inmates' stories. He even began working with prison populations while pursuing his master's degree. Incorporating recordings of speech from various executed prisoners, he began crafting the story of inmate 447990 — which new agers might note is numerological longhand for "six," the number of responsibility.
As the play begins, 447990 (and, what the hell, let's just call him "Six") is about to go to the electric chair. He doesn't. He gets a stay of execution. And so the rest of the production finds him making his case to the audience, addressing them directly and occasionally flashing back to earlier moments in his life. In the beginning, he is not sympathetic. "He starts the process of blame," says Carnes, "where he's the victim of society and poverty and violence and, you know, 'What choice did I have?' And then, in a series of confrontations with other inmates, family members, victims, politicians, and even prison guards and officials, he comes to the realization that maybe there is some responsibility that he holds — as a human being." After all of this transformation, the audience decides whether to kill him.
The beatific place Carnes seeks through Six is inspired, in part, by William Frank Parker, a man executed in Arkansas in 1996 for the murder of two correctional officers while he was incarcerated. Prior to his death, Parker became an ordained Buddhist monk.
"It was remarkable," says Carnes. "I looked at that person and said, 'What a man of strength, of true transformation, of compassion.' And with a lot of inmates, where you looked and saw that soulless monster, that soulless gaze, when I looked at this particular person, I thought, Well, this person has more humanity in him than I do. Maybe more than I ever will."
Well, wait a minute, Carnes. Isn't that a little naive? Aren't all of these jailhouse transformations simply a way for bad people to feel better about themselves?
"Right! What is guilt? What is genuine peace? A lot of times, in our own lives, we just bargain. When we confront death, it's 'Oh let's make amends so I can go to Heaven instead of Hell. I'll accept god, I'll be a good boy, because there's something in it for me.'"
Yes. So people do this even off of death row. We're all bargainers, aren't we?
And don't you think there's something wrong with that?
"No," Carnes says with an easy conviction that more confused people might envy.
Which is why a guy like Carnes — who admiringly refers to hoary old Western religions, such as Christianity, as "wisdom traditions," despite the fact that they hold all the world records when it comes to the wanton execution of innocents — might be just the right kind of person to tackle a question like capital punishment. He has some wild notions about things, and he tends to think the world is a little simpler than it might actually be (rape of the earth = rape of the mother = that evil scheming patriarchy). But it's not like Carnes is trying to rewrite the tax code. He's plumbing issues of life and death, and those really are pretty simple. Or should be. The more nuanced among us — judges, say — will often try to make us forget that. Of course, Carnes has never killed anybody. They have.
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