Atlanta Opera Stages Story of Mercy, Capital Punishment With ‘Dead Man Walking’

City Lights
January 2019

Can we forgive the unforgivable?

That question is central to the story of “Dead Man Walking,” a true account by Sister Helen Prejean about her time counseling a death row inmate. You may recognize the title from the 1995 film adaptation starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.

The Atlanta Opera is putting the story onstage.

“The nun was in over her head. She didn’t know what she was doing, and I didn’t,” Prejean says both of herself and portrayals of her on stage and screen. “The opera’s perfect because the aria Sister Helen sings is ‘My Journey,’ and I’m making my way, step by step.”

Georgia-born mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is playing Sister Helen in the Atlanta production and recalls her reactions to seeing other productions of the show throughout her career.

“Every time, I walk away from it with my head just buzzing thinking about everything that’s been left there in the wake of the execution,” she says.

“I think it’s something that audiences can cling to,” Barton says. “They see this tale of forgiveness that is hard. It’s not an easy forgiveness at all. But it challenges people in the best kind of ways to encourage their forgiveness, to encourage their empathy upon thinking of the people who do the worst kind of acts.”

The Atlanta Opera performs “Dead Man Walking” at the Cobb Energy Center Feb. 2-10. Sister Helen Prejean will be in conversation at the Emory University Center for Ethics, Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Hear the full interview >

Beth Stewart