For Sister Helen Prejean, the saga of “Dead Man Walking” has been a journey of two decades that has taught her about everything from the inner workings of prisons to teachings of the Buddha.
This week, she was on the campus of the University of Michigan appreciating the unique effect of music on the human psyche as part of an operatic rendition of the story.
“The arts are really important in bringing our society into a deeper mode of reflection on these important issues,” said Prejean, a Catholic nun who is known worldwide for her work to abolish the death penalty via a popular book, Oscar-winning film, stage productions and opera. She said the closed, secretive nature of executions makes it more critical that Americans receive some information about them in whatever form.
She also expressed her affection for the aria sung by her character in the opera, titled “My Journey.”
“It is all about the journey,” said Prejean , who travels widely to deliver some 140 lectures a year on capital punishment. “To be a human being is to be on a journey.” She said time has taught her that the Dead Man Walking journey is “toward human rights, toward being a society that moves to life instead of death.”
The play version of the story is infused with a curriculum that is taught in schools and colleges producing the story. Likewise, Prejean took part in two talks with audience members on issues raised by the operatic version this week at the University of Michigan. “Dead Man Walking: The Opera” has been staged 40 times around the world since its debut in 2000.
And while the story told in Dead Man Walking dates to 1982, the issues it raises are still timely. Just hours after the Ann Arbor performance, Prejean noted, Florida prison officials executed Chadwick Banks for the rape and murder of his 10-year-old stepdaughter in 1992.
“It’s about more than the death penalty,” she said. “We all know hurt and pain and wanting to get even with someone. Do we give in to that or in our heart can we move beyond it to a better place?”
Jud Branam, Fetzer Institute Communications Team