- Demands of the Dead: Executions, Storytelling, and Activism in the United States ed. by Katy Ryan
The United States imprisons more people than any other nation on Earth. It is one of the few countries still imposing the death penalty. Most capital convictions involve white victims, even though black Americans make up over half of all murder victims. Katy Ryan and her contributors revisit such facts throughout the sobering anthology Demands of the Dead, pounding a drumbeat of outrage that resounds through the book’s eclectic mix of testimonials, articles, scripts, and poems. This is activist scholarship. Contributors are unwaveringly abolitionist. Each piece chips away at the logical and affective support for execution. Though not a book about performance issues per se, the work’s subject matter and model of critical engagement should command the attention of theatre critics and practitioners alike.
Ryan divides the anthology into thirds. The first section, “Words through Walls,” focuses on first-person accounts from people on death row. She begins with the testimony of Willie Francis, a black teenager sentenced to die in 1946 (on flimsy evidence, by an all-white jury, and after a ludicrously brief trial) for the murder of a white man in Louisiana. Remarkably, gruesomely, Francis survived the state’s two (!) successive attempts to electrocute him. His advocates appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing for clemency on the grounds that subjecting Francis again to the electric chair would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In a five-to-four decision, the case failed, and Francis was put to death in 1948. The piece included here is Francis’s testimony as recorded by a local writer about what it was like to live through an electrocution. His words filtered we know not to what degree by his transcriber, Francis is harrowing in his detail and humbling in his generosity, one moment describing the sensation of being electrocuted and the next extending gratitude and understanding to his advocates even after the failed appeal.
Equally riveting are accounts by Steve Champion (now Adisa Akanni Kamara) and Rick Setter. Champion, who sits on death row in San Quentin, [End Page 85] recounts how, together with fellow inmates Anthony Ross (a.k.a. Ajani Addae Kamara) and Stanley Tookie Williams (a.k.a. Ajamu Kamara), he underwent a rigorous program of self-education. They absorbed whatever books they could secure, writing and discussing ideas whenever and however they could, and honing their authorial skills like iron sharpening iron—all the time while working within and around whatever arbitrary roadblocks the prison deemed fit to impose. Setter writes about his experiences working as a prison guard in Texas, exposing the inhuman and dehumanizing conditions that define life on death row.
Little in the rest of the anthology stands a chance of matching such testimonials in raw power. Ryan cannily pairs Francis’s and Champion’s accounts with scholarly pieces (essays by Jason Stupp and Tom Kerr, respectively) that engage the accounts and the writers’ lives directly. The pairings enhance rather than compete with the first-person accounts. A scene from Elizabeth Ann Stein’s screenplay Leaving Death Row rounds out this section.
The second section, “History and State Power,” includes scholarly essays by H. Bruce Franklin, John Cyril Barton, and Jennifer Leigh Lieberman. In each, literature (mainly from the 1800s) serves as a jumping-off point for investigating historical shifts in attitudes toward the death penalty in the United States. Readers not especially invested in nineteenth-century fiction will find a multitude of fascinating tidbits concerning the history of public execution (particularly electrocution—alternately framed as a more or less humane way to die). Ryan complements these articles with a set of short poems from Jill McDonough and a one-act play by Kia Corthron, Life by Asphyxiation. Corthron’s piece stages a fantasy encounter between a middle-aged death-row inmate, the girl he raped and murdered decades before, and historical figures Nat Turner and Crazy Horse (both of whom were killed for resisting racist...