‘On The Row’ — Staged Readings of Death Row Play Planned in Area

Staged Readings of Death Row Play Planned in Area

Unlocking stories of humanity, “On the Row” will deliver a powerful message to audiences at two venues in the Ohio Valley this week.

Part of the Prison Stories Project, the play features composite characters drawn from personal stories written by death row inmates in Arkansas. Staged readings of “On the Row” are to be presented at Wailes Theatre, Steinman Fine Arts Center, Bethany College, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and at Troy Theater, Swint Hall, Wheeling Jesuit University, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

The public performances, which run about 65 minutes, are free, but free-will donations are accepted to support prisoners on death row.

Dr. David Jolliffe, professor emeritus and Brown Chair in English Literacy at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and Dr. Gary Kappel, professor of history and Perry C. and Aleece C. Gresham Chair in Humanities at Bethany College, are responsible for organizing the local performances.

Jolliffe and Kappel grew up in New Martinsville and were classmates at Magnolia High School and at Bethany.

Taking roles in the staged readings are Jolliffe, Kappel, Ron Scott Jr. of Wheeling and Bethany College students Kerry Kerr, Mike Lyons and Isaac Flowers. Musician Rich Moore, husband of Wheeling native Mollie O’Brien, will participate in both performances.

Kathy McGregor, project director for the Prison Stories Project in Fayetteville, also is traveling to the area for the staged readings. Both McGregor and Jolliffe say it is the most important work in which they have been involved.

“The project is truly magnificent, and I am honored to be a part of it,” Kappel added. “As for my participation, it has been a revelatory experience working with the project.”

After talking to Jolliffe about the project, Kappel said, “I immediately thought that it would be a tremendous experience for our students to see and hear the work of these men. When we were doing auditions on campus in March, the project director, Kathy McGregor, met with a number of classes and was able to hook them up with one of the inmates via a phone link which was in and of itself a revelation to many of them –to talk with a man living day to day under sentence of death. I knew then I my instinct was correct.”

McGregor, a professional storyteller for 35 years, said she reached a point where “I didn’t want to be behind the microphone telling stories. I wanted to put folks who wouldn’t have a voice before the microphone. There are people no more silent than folks in prison.”

Inspired by a friend who had started a storytelling prison project in Memphis, she decided to begin a similar project with women at a correctional center in Fayetteville. The Prison Stories Project was established as an outreach endeavor from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, where McGregor and Jolliffe are members.

A theater director and a creative writing director joined McGregor as project director to form a team for the writing project. Inmates were invited to participate in writing groups. The women’s stories were edited by the theater director into a staged reading, which was performed for the entire inmate population and then in the community.

She said the women’s stories also were presented at a men’s prison in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. During a two-day creative writing workshop, the men wrote of their own abuse.

“We took stories of men in prison back to women in prison. This ‘call and response’ was quite beautiful,” McGregor related.

Jolliffe, who is a volunteer for the Prison Stories Project, recalled, “We had been doing this work in the women’s jail here in Fayetteville for a few years when the women inmates told us they often had fathers, brothers, boyfriends and husbands in Randall Williams Prison in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and the women suggested we do a similar project there. We did, and on the day we performed for those men, in the audience was the warden of the Varner Supermax, where Arkansas’ death row is housed. He asked us if we wanted to do a death row project, and we immediately said yes.”

Between May and October 2016, the team visited death row and worked with 11 men who volunteered to be part of the group. From that effort, “On the Row” was developed.

“We got unprecedented access to the men on death row,” McGregor said. “We had once-a-month visits for six months. We edited their work down. We brought in a musican and five actors.”

The play was performed for the men on Varner Supermax’s death row on Oct. 8, 2016. She recalled the initial performance as “this awkward staged reading between two sets of cages,” where the prisoners were confined.

At that time, the state of Arkansas was trying to execute eight men — including four of the writers — over 11 days. McGregor said, “Two (of the writers) were executed and two received last-minute stays of execution.”

Several public performances of “On the Row” were offered in northwest Arkansas. The play also was presented at the University of Colorado, the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame University.

Jolliffe described the play as “a dynamite work” and called it “the most important piece of art I’ve been involved in during my five decades as an actor and a director.”

Echoing his thoughts, McGregor commented, “It’s the hardest work, but also the most important work, I’ve ever done in my life.”

Cast members also view the project as their most important acting job. “They (the actors) realize what they’re doing is very significant and very sacred,” McGregor said.

Regarding public reaction to the work, she said, “I am always really surprised at how surprised our audiences are to the humanity of men on death row. They have actual feelings. Our audiences are always quite surprised and touched by that.”

In writing sessions, “we never ask any prisoner what their crime was,” she said, adding, “They write about what’s happened with them. A couple of them expressed remorse for their crimes.

“It speaks to what else can you do if you are locked away in solitary confinement for most of your life. None of the writing, and none of what they did, ask for anyone in the audience to feel sorry for them,” she said.

The Prison Stories Project doesn’t take a stand on the death penalty. “We’re a ministry of humanness,” she said.

Kappel remarked, “The characters are composites and one of mine used his time to try to become a better human being than he was when he was sentenced. He was one of the inmate participants executed in 2017. I can’t get my mind off that point.”

McGregor, who was a victim of a violent crime in the mid-1990s, said the group has received a grant to offer staged readings of “On the Row” at high schools in Arkansas.

“We’re editing the script to make it appropriate for high school audiences,” she said, adding, “This is what they (death row inmates) want more than anything. Some have worked on their own creating books and artworks. More than anything they want to help keep young people from making the same kinds of mistakes they made. It’s very personalized, very touching.”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church also has opened a Magdalene House in Fayetteville to provide residential housing and supportive services for women who have been released from prison. McGregor said the project is affiliated with the Thistle Farms ministry founded by the Rev. Becca Stevens in Nashville, Tennessee.

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