Kansas City native, Nathan Lewis Jackson’s play, When I Come to Die opened Feb. 21, at the Copeken Stage in downtown Kansas City to a sold out house, a standing ovation, and a joy-filled reception afterwards as Kansas City welcomed their native son’s play about a death-row inmate reflecting on his miracle escape from lethal injection.
Damon Robinson beat the odds and survived what others did not, three injections to end his life, and his life did end as evidenced by a local priest who attends executions; but, something went wrong and Damon lived and returned to his cell. There, the story unfolds into how life and perspectives change on death row for Damon Robinson and Roach, the prisoner in the next cell, also awaiting his termination.
Heap credit on Jackson for taking a new, fresh look at inmates and the interior battles they wage against The Waiting Game. Death controls their thoughts as they await their end, but it’s what happens after they evade death that rattles their being and forces them to rethink current circumstances. Jackson took a convicted monster and develops his persona and character in a well-shaped piece that teaches the audience about the humanity that dwells within everyone–even serious criminals.
“When I Come to Die is a thought-provoking story about the power one action can have over a life, and the depths from which meaning and redemption can be attained,” a spokesman for the KC Rep said. “After surviving a lethal injection in prison, death row inmate Damon Robinson struggles to find faith and understanding of why his life has been spared. Befriending the prison's chaplain, he sets about using his unexpected time on earth searching for answers.”
Will Cobbs gives a subdued performance as Damon who can’t understand the reason he receives a second chance at life within the prison walls. He understands what created his situation but not what saved him from destruction. His slow transition through common stages of the grieving process brings the heart to his performance. Cobbs shows great stage presence and confidence throughout the performance as he deftly leads his character through the stages of grief. He goes through disbelief, anger, blame, questioning, and acceptance in a seamless performance that captures the audience and leads them by the hand through his journey to inner peace.
Beside him, “Roach” shows a completely different personification of a person awaiting death. He, too, faces the needles, but his personality differs so much from that of Damon’s. Conan McCarty performs “Roach” as a simple-minded, obsessive-compulsive perfectionist with a twist. His performance draws on the Renfield character from Dracula. He’s crazy and he doesn’t know he’s anything but normal. When stressed and pressed, he can’t control himself–hence his appointment with death. McCarty draws the audience’s attention in each of his scenes. He creates an onstage battle for stage presence with Cobbs.
Besides the two inmates, the prison chaplain, a Catholic priest, listens and allows Damon to work through his issues. Masterfully played with a flair for making grim situations seem palpable, Kevin Cristaldi brings the heart to the play. By being a listener and gently urging Damon on to finding the depth of his spirit and convictions, Cristaldi is splendid. His scenes with Cobbs are uplifting in When I Come to Die.
The other character in the show, Damon’s sister, stands to gain from her brother’s unfortunate life. While she does care for her brother, money drives her motives. Janae Nichole Mitchell did a wonderful piece of acting without going overly dramatic in the scenes. She gave a controlled performance where her motives lay hidden under her facade. Her speech matched a prerecorded video to perfection.
Kyle Hatley scored another triumph with his direction of When I Come to Die. He understands the piece, the characters, and the inner struggles each faces. Knowing that, he coached superb performances from his quartet. His concept for the visitation scene surprises and astounds the audience. His direction of Webb and Mitchell in that scene is like watching a piece of music. The live actors mirror the words and expression of the videos behind them. Hatley kept the tragedy infused with subtle laughs throughout dire situations.
With the collaboration and backing of his production crew, Hatley created a functional, working set. The production crew includes: Jack McGraw, scenic design; Courtney O’Neil, asst. scenic design; Georgianna Londre Buchanan, Costume design; Jeffrey Cady, lighting/production design; Joseph Concha, sound design; Stephanie Klapper, casting; Samantha Greene, Production stage manager.
When I Come to Die necessitates the highest recommendation. The play continues through March 16. For tickets and information check their website: www.kcrep.org. One special performance March 13 benefits the Reaching Out from Within organization which works with inmates to help them transition or life after incarceration.