nytheatre.com review by Kevin Connell
August 15, 2004
His name is Ken Carnes and his contribution to the New York International Fringe Festival is his solo play Last Words. He is primarily an activist, an educator, and a disciple for social awareness. Based on the last word testimonies from inmates across America headed for the electric chair, this docudrama centers on the fictitious Albert L. Peoples, a sort of everyman illuminating the heart of human suffering and the ramifications of lives seemingly misused, but more misunderstood.
It is clear in the design of his play that Carnes seeks sympathy and compassion for those on death row. I must say that sitting in the theatre I missed the debate on the issue—the controversy. I wanted the challenge of being a juror asked to decide between the death penalty and life in prison. I wanted somehow to be convinced that the choice of death was right and I wanted that to be disproved, so that by the play's end I would be definitively convinced, changed, and yes, sympathetic and compassionate. With continued script development, Carnes may find that this complication strengthens his well-intentioned counsel to empathize.
Effectively projected throughout the production are the actual last words of decades of inmates sentenced to death. Accompanying each quote is their photo. Mostly men—two women—so many from Texas, but also Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, California, Oklahoma, Virginia, Missouri, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, and Utah. This serves as testimony of the lives terminated in 1999 and 1955 and the years before, in between, and since.
This is a wonderful social drama that most certainly should be incorporated into our education and counseling systems, high schools and juvenile detention centers, colleges and judicial training programs.
This production is worthy of traveling down to 86 Walker Street (at the Paul Sharpe Contemporary Arts space). It’s a questionable venue with a broken elevator, but don’t judge Last Words by its cover. Inside, Carnes delivers a humble, gracious, and intriguing look at an important issue and the lives that inhabit it.