A Shift in Focus

With one week left to go until spring break, I am turning my attention away from research-collection and towards the outlining and early-writing stages. Our paper outlines were due today and are the focus of the blog posts of most students in the Seminar, but due to my specific situation I admittedly gave my outline minimal thought and will instead consider here my research escapades of late.

I recently returned from Washington, D.C. I was able to visit for a few days and collect information from a variety of sources. I arrived early on Saturday the 25th and spent some time with a cousin of mine living in the district before heading off to the Kennedy Center of the Arts, which was debuting Dead Man Walking that evening. The opera was the primary purpose of my trip, which became known to me after speaking with an acquaintance of Sr. Prejean earlier in the month. The show gave me two impressions in particular. Seeing the show made me realize how the different mediums of Dead Man Walking— book, film, play, opera, etc.– each engenders different feelings. Each tells the same story in essence yet affects the audience in its own unique way. For me, the strength of the opera lies in its emotional appeal,  by virtue of its powerful music especially. I also left the Kennedy Center questioning how well the opera captured the real experience of witnessing the death penalty. I imagine the show still proved jarring for the average opera-goer, considering its moral complexity, and that the abolitionist movement will benefit from it, but at the same time the gilded halls of the Kennedy Center felt far removed from a place such as Angola Prison.

After the show, Sister Prejean (present for the performance) as well as conductor Michael Christie gave a brief Q&A for lingering attendees. After delving so deeply into Prejean’s work, it was very neat for me to see and hear her in person. According to Prejean, Tim Robbins (the director of the film version) had noted that propaganda and art are different and stressed that art should change minds without force. In Prejean’s words, “Opera is the highest expression of art.” Prejean answered many other questions relating to her work; shining through her responses was a deeply-optimistic belief that the death knell of the death penalty may soon ring.

The next day was mostly spent studying, given midterms being administered this week, but I returned to research on Monday. After a few failed attempts, I was able to secure a ticket to the African American Museum of History and Culture, the Smithsonian’s newest addition. The death penalty as practiced is in many ways a derivation of slavery (as is the phenomenon of mass-incarceration) and so the museum’s content was undoubtedly relevant. In fact, the museum showcases an old guard tower from Angola Prison, within which both Pat Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie were executed. I was slightly rushed at the museum, though, because I was scheduled to meet with a prominent death penalty scholar for an interview that afternoon before my flight back.

The trip essentially replaced my original plan to visit Louisiana, but it worked out well considering it was planned only weeks in advance. My plan before break is to continue with phone interviews and wrap up my visits to DePaul’s Special Collections. Going into break, the writing process will begin.

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