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The quality of mercy 

Three different shows kick off the fall season with separate inquiries into the relationship between justice and compassion

It's one of the funny things about being a theater critic. The topic of mercy rarely comes up in conversation.

Still, in fairness, I doubt I'm the only one who seldom happens across--or uses--the term these days. Perhaps it was the "elections" of 2000 that put it seriously out of style, during which Gov. Bush bragged that, in authorizing 152 executions, he'd never killed an innocent woman or man. As if snuffing out the life of any human being was something in which one could take pride.

Or maybe, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the American government and military finally proved to a watching worldwide audience of governments and militias that mercy, if not treasonous, remains an unaffordably dangerous luxury.

The resulting hunt for the guilty metastasized into an ongoing planetary search for the surprisingly elusive qualities of justice and security. And our example of pre-emptive retribution without frontiers has seemingly found echoes all over the globe.

Here is its achievement: Who now dares speak of mercy in Gaza, or Jerusalem? In Baghdad, Sri Lanka, Burma or Liberia? In Guantanamo Bay or the Oval Office? In Iowa or New Hampshire? Or in the governor's office in Raleigh, or the small room across town where the hot shot drips, in our names, into the bound arm of the condemned?

When was the last time you or I needed the term mercy? Weeks ago? Months, perhaps? Can we actually remember? Is that a good sign?

I have to ask, because no less than three separate shows have raised the same issue over the past week.

In Manbites Dog's dry Minstrel Show: The Lynching of William Brown, two itinerant African-American entertainers calmly pointed out that our last century's version of justice without borders, without check and without mercy was the lynch mob. The pair also bore witness to the justice meted out to the imprisoned slave labor at Mississippi's infamous Parchman Farm.

That same night, the new musical adaptation of Clyde Edgerton's comparatively light-hearted Killer Diller opened at UNC's Swain Hall. Man-child Wesley Benfield's continuing adventures (first documented in Walking Across Egypt) find him among inhabitants serving sentence in a halfway house, under the thumb of a pompous, self-made Baptist seminarian. Wesley wrestles to reconcile the joyless, rigid conservatism of his keepers' interpretation of scripture with the fallibilities of Old Testament leaders--not to mention the simultaneously spiritual and earthly delights cataloged in the Song of Solomon.

The undisputed high point of Killer Diller: a rousing (and unauthorized) public performance by the halfway house singing group of the gospel classic, "Jesus Dropped the Charges." It's an indictment of the perpetual judgment found in some fundamentalist, small-town churches--the ones who conveniently forget (or never knew to start with) that one Hebrew name given the Devil throughout the Old Testament is ha-Satan: "the accuser."

But the issues of justice and mercy came into particularly sharp focus Saturday night, when a septet of current inmates from Raleigh's Women's Prison, under the aegis of The N.C. Women's Prison Writing and Performance Project, presented their original work, Doing More Than Time, at Carrboro ArtsCenter's Earl Wynn Theater.

An above-capacity crowd showed for the event, with more than 40 patrons ultimately turned away at the door. They should be advised--along with the rest of the region's community of conscience--that the group will be allowed a return engagement on Saturday, Dec. 13. Reportedly, a limited tour is also under discussion--as well it should be.

I have seen inmate theater twice before. I witnessed a prison production of Stir, an original musical, inside the Kentucky State Penitentiary, while the 2000 Humana Festival was in progress in Louisville. Before that, it was the BBC's tapes of Samuel Beckett's work with the San Quentin Drama Workshop.

Stir was characterized by amateurish, maudlin platitudes--a group of inmates clearly playing to the warden. By contrast, the San Quentin ensemble effectively got at the humor of Beckett's dryer, existential verities, underlining the fact that, in Beckett's view, we're all serving a life sentence.

Doing More than Time easily falls between these poles. Time works best in the moments of individual revelation, the unexpected and unguarded one-on-one encounters between the audience and the individuals on stage. By comparison, ensemble sections like the crossroads depicted in "Spiritual Warfare" come off as stagy. Thankfully, such moments are rare in this 45-minute production.

The autobiographical nature of the women's work lends it unique authority in performance. Perhaps the most fascinating thing this show does is help a group of women construct a bridge from their prison cells back toward society.

For the mechanisms of war, incarceration, race--and class--in America hinge on dividing the "us" of any group from the "them" of the rest. All three rely on distance and dehumanizing the other to accomplish this. It's overt in the opening section, "My Number," when Regina Walters is reduced to "Inmate 0423358." It shows in the audience's response when the women enter the theater through the audience, not from backstage.

One of the most noble things theater can do is to "undisappear" a people, to give them back their voice. In different ways, to different extents, three different shows have done just that this week. None of them perfect; all of them useful. The fall season could start on a worse note than this. EndBlock

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