Louisiana’s reputation as an especially harsh place for death row inmates has inspired some powerful stories, including the Academy Award-winning film “Dead Man Walking” and Ernest J. Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying.”
Joining those ranks is “Song of a Man Coming Through,” a new play by Joe Morris Doss and Andrew Doss, based on the true story of convicted killer Earnest Knighton Jr. and the men who tried to save his life.
Directed by Aimee Hayes, Southern Rep’s world premiere of “Song of a Man Coming Through,” running through Nov. 21 at First Grace United Methodist Church, is a compelling, well-crafted drama.
The story doesn’t hinge on innocence or guilt — Knighton admits to killing Ralph Shell during the robbery of a Shreveport service station — but on Knighton’s death sentence, which one of his lawyers calls “arbitrary and capricious.”
That lawyer is Joe Morris Doss, an Episcopal priest and member of the Louisiana Bar, whose work on Knighton’s defense team moved him to write “Song of a Man Coming Through,” with his son Andrew, in order to bring Knighton’s story to a wider audience.
As Doss (played by Mike Harkins) and co-counselor Julian Murray (played by John Neisler) mount an appeal to overturn Knighton’s sentence, they run up against a system that offers very little hope or compassion for Knighton’s fate, despite evidence that suggests the injustice of his sentencing.
“Song of a Man Coming Through” largely avoids the trap of an overly sentimental jailhouse redemption story where the inmate and confessor overcome their differences to forge an unlikely bond.
Instead, the playwrights divide most of the action into two overlapping narratives, one focusing on the courtroom drama and backroom politics of Edwin Edwards’ governor’s mansion, and the other focusing on Knighton’s own soul searching as he and his cellmate bicker and banter about his life-or-death situation.
The courtroom scenes are driven by passionate arguments and unfolding evidence, and Harkins and Neisler offer solid performances as advocates for justice.
The scenes between Knighton and his cellmate are more abstract, as the pair riff on everything from baseball to pop music to Greek mythology.
As Knighton, Robert Diago DoQui anchors the production with strong, quiet resolve. As the cellmate, Lance E. Nichols (perhaps best known as LaDonna’s husband, Larry Williams, on “Treme”) shines, serving as the play’s conscience and offering commentary in the manner of a Greek chorus.
The script falters in a few places — there are moments of heavy-handed exposition and legal explanations, and the role of a young female paralegal is underdeveloped — but the performances and direction keep the tension wound tight.
The production incorporates music throughout, starting with the cast’s gospel sing-along of “I’ll Fly Away,” led by vocalists Brittney M. James and Barbara Shorts. The two singers, in crimson choir robes, are a constant presence, their powerful voices injecting the show with a dose of spirituality.
Even the play’s title has the ring of an old Southern spiritual, but it’s actually a reference to the D.H. Lawrence poem, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,” which is printed in the show’s program.
The play never mentions the poem directly, but there’s a clear connection between the final moments of the play and the last lines of the poem, which announce the arrival of angels.