This is a True Story – Thoughts on A Play about the Death Penalty

18 Mar

Question & Answer Section After The Play

This Is A True Story
16 March 2007, 8pm @ Sydney Theatre
A Play Presented by Reprieve Australia and Sydney Theatre

Review of Monologue:

Based on a true story about Howard Neal, convicted and sentenced to death for killing his niece in Mississippi in 1982, “This is a True Story” is a thought- provoking monologue that aims to highlight the plight of those on death row.

With an IQ of 54, Neal taught himself to read and write while on death row. The monologue, hence, is based on the man’s 33 pages of manuscript about his life, which the director, Nicholas Harrington came across while working as a voluntary paralegal. Later on, he developed it further into a play by collaborating with writer Tom Wright, who goes on to portray Howard Neal.

The Friday performance, which is also a fund-raiser for Repreieve Australia, is held at Sydney Theatre’s rehearsal studio. The approximately 100 seat small theatre, used for the first time to a public showing, is almost packed.

Tom has his head shaved and was wearing only a pair of boxers almost throughout the entire play, eliciting a sense of despair and loneliness. The delivery is breathtakingly human as he speaks with a hesitating southern drawl captivating the imagination of the audience especially when he pauses. As he relates his miserable childhood and troubling early adolescence and twenties with much contorting facial and bodily expressions, the focus lighting on him draws a sharp contrast on his body shape amidst the dark surroundings. The overall effect is a chilling blanket silence on a captivated audience that is being lead to empathize with the main character.

While “This is a True Story” exposes some of the structural inadequacies within the US judicial system and the common prisoner abuses in the state penitentiary system, the more compelling personal tale of Howard Neal may very well be just one of the many other untold stories…

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Thoughts on Question And Answer After The Play

Lex Lasry QC, lawyer for Australian Van Ngyuen, who was hanged in Singapore in December 2005, and currently assisting in the representation of the Bali 9, is one of the members in the panel. Tom Wright and Nicholas Harrington, who were involved in the production of the play, were also present to answer questions related to the play and Howard’s impending appeal.

On his case for Ngyuen, Lex Lasry talked about the inflexibility and the dependence of the Singapore judiciary to the government. He also opined that international pressure would coerce the Singapore government to abolish capital punishment. On the other hand, with regards to Bali Nine, he feels that the Indonesian government, unlike their Singapore counterparts, are “searching in the dark”, and more willing to seek international opinions on the issue of death penalty.

While Lex Lasry is right to concur that the Singapore government is extremely inflexible on granting clemency to death penalty cases, he fails to mention that there are more intricate complications when it comes to discussing and abolishing the death penalty in Singapore.

For example, he fails to mention the authoritarian rule of the PAP government and its tight control on the media. As he speaks of how the majority of Singaporeans felt the cloistered need for death penalty to tackle serious crimes and drug trafficking, he fails to mention that this is due to a process of media brainwashing, which often toes the official stance. He also fails to mention that the death sentence applied to drug cases is mandatory in Singapore. This means that judges are tied by the very own laws that have been passed by a dominant one party authoritarian conservative government.

Hence, in trying to raise the awareness of the cruelty of the death penalty within Singapore, there is a need to be sensitive to specificities pertaining to the country’s political and social climate.

The organizer of the play, Reprieve Australia, “aims to provide effective legal representation and humanitarian assistance to those facing the death penalty, to advocate against the death penalty and to raise awareness about human rights.”

Established in Melbourne, Australia, it conducts volunteer programs at home and abroad, including sending Australians to defend clients facing the death penalty.

One of their stated aims includes “sending volunteers to work overseas, directly assisting those facing the death penalty”; most of them based in United States, on states that still practice the death penalty.

While this is a commendable effort, more focus should be directed towards countries that still implement the death penalty, and which are geographically closer to Australia e.g. Singapore, Malaysia and China. Recent high profile cases such as Ngyuen and Bali Nine has shown that Australia’s physical proximity with its Asian neighbours mean that death penalty cases involving Australians are unlikely to go away.

In addition, the anti- death penalty movement in most neighbouring Asian countries, unlike in US, are still in their struggling and growing phases. As such, Reprieve Australia, due to physical proximity, has a greater obligation to assist regional anti-death penalty, instead of focusing its attention on US. China, for example, according to Amnesty International, “continues to carry out more judicial executions than the rest of the world combined. In addition, despite having the largest population in the world, China possibly executes a higher proportion of its population than any other country.”

There is a need to highlight death penalty cases involving non- Australians even though the organisation is based in Australia. E.g. The recent execution of Took, an alleged murderer; and Tochi, a Nigerian and Malachy, a stateless South African caught for drug smuggling in Singapore has been met with less international scrutiny and condemnation. Reprieve Australia, with its expertise, could fill in that critic role.

As has been explained earlier, networking with other respective local anti-death penalty NGOs will be crucial to increasing awareness within communities in individual countries that still implement the death penalty. Local NGOs are much suited to carry out grassroots work as they are much more attuned to the socio-political climate and peculiarities.

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