Setting the Stage: Original Documents Inspire Performance

In 1982, Sr. Helen Prejean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, began corresponding with a death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, at Angola (the Louisiana State Penitentiary). She became his spiritual adviser and accompanied him to his execution, later writing a non-fiction account of her experience with Pat Sonnier, and with another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States was first published in 1993.

StudentsThe students from The Prairie School in Racine, Wisconsin, who will perform the stage version of Dead Man Walking  November 13-15, 2014, weren’t born when Sister Helen began her ministry, when the book was first published, or when the film version was released 1995 to critical acclaim and wide distribution.  But the events and Sr. Helen’s story are fresh in their minds, thanks to the Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project. In the past ten years, more than 240 high schools and colleges across the country have produced the play, supporting discourse on the death penalty, and challenging themselves and their communities to engage with the issue through art, music, and public events.

This October, the students at The Prairie School became the first participants in the School Theatre Project to travel to DePaul’s Special Collections and Archives to get deeper into their characters and explore the societal context for Sr. Helen’s work by examining selected items from the Sr. Helen Prejean papers. Seven members of the cast examined correspondence, articles, and photographs saved by Sr. Helen as well as movie artifacts, posters and set designs from previous productions of Dead Man Walking.

StudentsDrama Teacher/Theatre Director Rebecca Greasby invited her students to share one or two items that most affected them, or that they thought their fellow students should see.  The items selected ranged from official, formal correspondence (such as from Sr. Helen and Tim Robbins to the Vatican), moving personal correspondence between Sr. Helen and Pat Sonnier and between brothers Pat and Eddie Sonnier, and hate mail to Sr. Helen sent both anonymously and on official letterhead. Several students mentioned photographs of inmates, and of Pat Sonnier’s daughter.

One of many letters sent anonymously to Sr. Helen by “Guess Who?” from 1989 to 1996.

Guess Who Letter 1989
One of many letters sent anonymously to Sr. Helen by “Guess Who?” from 1989 to 1996.

Students’ comments showed that this “field trip” would have a lasting impact.

“It was pretty cool to hold the actual letter that Helen wrote.”

“It felt so authentic and valuable…I felt very, very lucky.”

“I will take everything to heart and incorporate it into my character and my interactions with other characters.”

 “I will never forget this experience.”

“Being able to actually touch someone’s writing and clothing makes me connect with them on another level.”

A selection of materials are viewable online in the “In Deeds and Words: Sr. Helen Prejean’s Ministry Against the Death Penalty” exhibit.

To learn more about Sr. Helen Prejean’s papers , faculty or student research opportunities, or class instruction sessions, contact Special Collections and Archives at or stop by our department in the John T. Richardson Library, room 314.

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