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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

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Play examines the value of human life and our prejudicial legal system

Play examines the value of human life and our prejudicial legal system

I recently went to see the world premiere production of the play Song of a Man Coming Through by Joe Morris Doss and his son Andrew Doss.

Joe Doss is an Episcopal Bishop and a lawyer and his son Andrew is an attorney and studying theology at Yale University.

The play is based on the true Louisiana story of convicted murderer Earnest Knighton, Jr., and the priest, lawyer, and paralegal who reluctantly became his greatest advocates. That priest, now Bishop Doss, and his son, Andrew, are finally sharing Earnest’s compelling story as promised him 30 years ago before he was executed at Angola.

The play was held in the First Grace Methodist Church in New Orleans to bring out the transformation that took place in the various individuals who tried to get Earnest’s death conviction overturned or commuted to life in prison. The play examines the value of human life and the prejudice that is often found in our judicial system that favors one race over another.

“At the heart of Earnest’s particular journey is a universal message about the human capacity for change even in the worst of circumstances. We’ve worked to turn a true story into a theatrical experience that will be emotionally compelling, intellectually engaging, and even inspiring for audiences,” said co-playwright Bishop Joe Doss.

It was a moving experience and made me think about some experiences a person must go through on death row.

The story does not revolve around the innocence or guilt of Knighton. Knighton admits killing Ralph Shell during the robbery of a Shreveport service station in the early 1980's. He was on drugs at the time. However, Knighton’s trial and death sentence was rushed without the usual time to examine motives and the situation involved in the robbery.

The play has two focuses: one the investigation of the crime and the legal system that rushed and condemned a black man to death. During the investation the team uncovered the case of four white men who raped and killed a 14-year-old black teenage girl. They were tried by the same judge, the same prosecuting attorneys that Earnest had but they got off with life in prison.

His legal team tried every form of appeal they could think of even meeting with Governor Edwin Edwards in his mansion trying to work out some backroom politics but everything failed.

The other focus of the play is on Knighton’s own soul searching as he and his cellmate exchange views about his life-or-death situation. His cellmate questions the sincerity of the legal team and wonders whether they are trying to make a name for themselves by taking on his case.

The unnamed cellmate, played by Lance E. Nichols, (perhaps best known as LaDonna’s husband, Larry Williams, on “Treme”), comes in and out of the various scenes, serving as the play’s conscience and offering a running commentary in the manner of a Greek chorus.

The production incorporates gospel music before, during and after. The spiritual sing-along of “I’ll Fly Away,” led by vocalists Brittney M. James and Barbara Shorts, injects the show with a powerful dose of spirituality. The play’s title has a reference to the D.H. Lawrence poem, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,” which is printed in the show’s program.

The play never mentions the poem directly, but there’s a clear connection between the final moments of the play when Earnest is baptized and the last lines of the poem, which announce the arrival of angels to fly him away.

The play raises many important issues, such as the ethics of capital punishment and the history of biased sentencing of black criminals. This challenging and enthralling play celebrates the human capacity for transformation of Earnest and ourselves.