On the 'Fence' :: A Chat With Death Penalty Drama Director Daniel Bourque

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday March 29, 2017

The issue of the death penalty has long remained contentious. On one side of the debate are those who maintain that for some sorts of crime, only death can serve as a proper punishment. Those on the other side of the question point out that in addition to the ethical problem this poses -- after all, if we condemn killing, then who are we to kill in turn? -- there are economic and pragmatic considerations. It costs more to keep a prisoner on death row, for instance, than it does to lock him up of life. Moreover, because the death penalty presents a permanent and irreversible form of punishment, there's no remedy that can help an individual who is later found to be innocent -- a chilling prospect sharpened by the many convictions of death row inmates that have been overturned since the advent of DNA evidence.

Though Bruce Graham's death row drama "Coyote on a Fence" was first produced in the late 1990s, it remains as relevant now -- if not more so -- than it was then. The play features not one, but two prisoners awaiting execution. One is a likable white supremacist who has murdered a congregation of African-Americans by burning their church. Another is an educated man accused of killing a drug dealer.

The play thus encompasses a cross-section of overlapping ethical and demographic areas. Who do we protect? Who do we discard? Who do we punish for their crimes, and how severely? The Hub Theatre Company of Boston tackles those questions, and the director of their production of Graham's play, Daniel Bourque, chats with EDGE about these, and other, questions.

EDGE: I don't recall if you have directed productions for Hub Theatre Company before this one.

Daniel Bourque: I've been directing for Hub since their first season. I directed 'ART' last year; and before that I co-directed '6 Hotels.' I also directed 'Loot.' and 'Sand Mountain.' I wasn't a founding member, but I came on board during the first season.

EDGE: 'Coyote on a Fence' is a pretty tough play in terms of its subject matter; the death penalty is always controversial. What drew you to the job of directing this production?

Daniel Bourque: We were sitting around and talking about what we wanted to do in the next year, and we were sort of throwing titles back and forth. 'Coyote on A Fence' is something that I saw done years and years ago, when I was just coming out of undergrad. Ever since then I've wanted to do it, because I think the death penalty [stories] are very interesting. I thought it would be a very good time to do it, so I gave to everyone, and John and Lauren read it and they immediately said, 'This is really great. We need to do this show.'

It's funny, because we [chose] it before the current election cycle. We picked it without necessarily [meaning] to be political, before the current election season, and it's ended up being even more [relevant] that it might have been otherwise.

EDGE: I can believe that. The last election brought certain things about our country to the fore that we might not be so happy to have to reckon with.

Daniel Bourque: It's also interesting because the play was written about 20 years ago. It really reads and it plays like a present-day piece, and the Dylann Roof case is very analogous to this case here.

[Editor's note: Dylann Roof is the Neonazi and white supremacist who, on June 17, 2015, entered an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people, including a pastor and a state senator. He later said he had done it with the intention of starting a war between African Americans and Caucasian Americans. Roof was convicted and sentenced to die.] The Dylann Roof character is kind of like one of our characters, but more sympathetic in 'Coyote.' But you really can draw interesting parallels between that case and this [play]. It's been a while since the play was done. There was apparently a production a couple of years ago, I think on the North Shore somewhere, but the last significant fringe or professional production was Boston Theater Works back around 2004.

EDGE: You made reference to Dylann Roof just now. In the play, the 'Dylann Roof' -- like character set fire to an African-American church which was occupied at the time by its congregation, but that's only half the story in this play. The other half has to do with a man, also on death row, who killed a drug dealer. Both of these characters have a vigilante quality about them; they both seem to think they are removing undesirables for the good of society.

Daniel Bourque: We had an interesting discussion about this the other day in rehearsal -- about John's character, the one who may or may not have killed the drug dealer. There's no real answer in there as to whether or not he did it. It's sort of about what his character's arc in the story is. There's another character in there whose view is that this [killing] was pretty much justified. I think that what I love about the play is that it isn't polemic and it's incredibly ambiguous on all aspects of who the character is, and the various issues in the play. There's a perspective from the characters themselves; there's a perspective from a journalist, there a perspective from a guard who [stands in] for law enforcement as a whole. I would agree with the statement all theater is political, but I much prefer things that leave you provoked and wonder and questioning as opposed to being hit over the head with something.

EDGE: Of course, the question remains: As a society, we decide all the time who is worth keeping in our midst and who we need to reject, for whatever reason. How does the play think about this? Is it a legal question? Is it a moral problem? Is it a matter of pragmatism?

Daniel Bourque: Yeah, you know, I think the play presents it as more of a moral and pragmatic problem. It doesn't really offer any real answers. There are mentions about the legal battles, but there's no real depiction of that in there. A friend of mine actually works in prisons and she said you can see the crime; you can't necessarily see all things that led to it. You can't necessarily see all the things that shaped these people up to this point. It's also important to remember that [the crime someone might have committed] is one day in someone's life, as opposed to necessarily being [representative of] every instance [of who he or she actually is].

EDGE You mentioned a moment ago you have an interest in capital punishment stories, and aside from 'Coyote' I can't think offhand of anything on terms of theater work that really delves into the issue. In terms of movies, it's something of an evergreen subject; Robert Wise's 'I Want to Live,' from 1958; Tim Robbins' 'Dead Man Walking,' from 1995... you could possibly make an argument for including a film like Ryan Coogler's 2013 movie 'Fruitvale Station,' though that's more an example of law enforcement meting out lethal force in an extrajudicial manner. Are stories such as those lurking in the background for you as you go through the process of figuring out and guiding this play?

Daniel Bourque: Not really. I'm infamously not a television viewer. My girlfriend loves television, I don't.


Whenever we're at home she wants the TV on; I'm like, 'No, no, no! Turn it off!' Everybody's been talking about 'Orange is the New Black,' which I've never actually watched. I'm more of a classic film fan, like 'I Am A Fugitive from A Chain Gang' [1932, directed by Mervyn LeRoy], and I think I have seen 'I Want to Live' before, But no, a lot of those jailhouse tropes don't necessarily play into this when I'm working on it personally.

EDGE: This play is supposed to be based on true events. How closely does the script in fact stick to the real story?

Daniel Bourque: You know, that's an interesting question. I have purposefully not done a lot of research on that aspect of it, as I don't want it to color this story because the play itself is a totally distinctive thing from whatever may have happened in real life. Interestingly enough, I actually met Bruce Graham years ago. When I saw that production out in the Berkshires he was actually there. I was working as a house manager at the time, so I met him very briefly. It was cool. It was a regional premiere. It had been done in Cincinnati, and it had been done in New York, but I think this was a New England premiere of the play. Extrapolating even further, originally [the play had been produced] at Urban Stages, and I worked, for a couple of years before I came to Boston, in Albany, New York, at Capital Repertory Theater. I had sort of an extended internship there over the period of a couple of years. I had some interactions with some of the people at Urban Spaces, which had originally commissioned and put it together -- thought of course I didn't necessarily realize at the time there were those connections. Years later, I put all that together.

EDGE: This cast isn't necessarily the usual Hub suspects. What went into the casting of this production? What were you looking for?

Daniel Bourque: Mark Krawczyk who plays John is someone we had worked with before in a number of readings with Hub that I had directed. He's a great guy, and he's a fabulous actor to work with.

In terms of the other characters, we needed to have someone for the Bobby character who is not only someone who knows the craft, but has the emotional maturity to play that role, which [Cameron Gosselin] really has. I didn't necessarily know him very well personally, but I wanted someone who I had a bit of connection with. I'd seen his work before, so that was a part of it (not to mention I had previously had the pleasure of working with his lovely wife, Meredith). And then Rob Orzalli, who's playing Sam, is a company member, and he was someone who was, in the beginning, when we were putting those pieces together, we said, 'This role has Rob's name written all over it.'

One of the interesting things about this [play] is that it talks about the African American church that [the character Bobby] burned, but there are no actual roles that are specifically African-American in there. The Shawna character could be any person, [and] I really wanted to cast [an African-American actor] in that role, because we are sitting around talking about this incident and there are no people of color in it. That was really important to me so when I saw Regine in Hub's production of 'The Good Body' I knew I had to have her come in and read.

EDGE: I can see why it would be, especially given our current political climate.

Daniel Bourque: Yeah... And when I saw it, there was a little bit of color in it also. You can totally do it without that; there were a couple of actors who auditioned [for that role] who were really fabulous also, but Regine she just nailed it.

EDGE: Any drama is only made better by a little humor. What's the humor like in this play?

Daniel Bourque: You know, it's actually very effective, There is a lot of humor in [the play]. That's really one of the great things about the writing: There are these really grim scenes, but followed by very funny interactions between the prisoners. One of the things about the Bobby character is that he's someone who has such a likable thing about him that you really end up liking him in spite of [the things he's done]. He is one of the more likeable characters in the play. I don't want to give away too much -- but there is a lot of humor, and Graham says in his notes, 'Play the humor; this isn't meant to be deadly [serious].'

EDGE So when you say Bobby is likable, you mean he's smart and terrifying, but charming? Or he's a friendly next-door sort, though he's maybe not that bright?

Daniel Bourque: I think it's a little bit of a combination. That's the character who committed the massacre, and it's one of those things -- watching it as an audience, one of the conceits of the play is that you end up having some empathy for him, and if you're successful in doing the play, you end up forgetting for a moment about the things that he's done. That sets up an interesting question in the minds of the audience about humanizing the criminal.

EDGE: Humanizing the criminal really does speak to the thesis of the play, because criminals are still human beings, and it's a controversial question: Does the state ever have the moral authority to kill a person? How do we justify eradicating someone whose crime has been to eradicate others? How are we not implicated in turn?

Daniel Bourque: There is a lot of debate about that in art. This is a little bit of a stretch, because it's not a prison drama, but, for example, John Adams' opera "'he Death of Klinghoffer' [about the hijacking of a jet in 1985 by Palestinian terrorists and the execution of a wheelchair-bound passenger] doesn't really humanize the terrorists, but it does present them as having some human motivation; people have been reacting against that very, very strongly ever since it was presented [in 1991]. I mean, it's under a different lens [than 'Coyote on A Fence']; it's under the Israeli/Palestinian lens, which is if anything as explosive a topic as you possibly can address. But all the time you hear people saying, 'How could you possible humanize these people?' I kind of have a different take on that, personally; I think that humanizing them and understanding why gives us a greater understanding of them than you possibly could [otherwise] have. Even with the Marathon bombing situation -- how could you possibly humanize the people who did this? Understanding that it's human beings who do this sort of horrific, horrific thing is part of the key to unlocking it all.

EDGE: In other words, to fight monsters we have to remember that they are human beings?

Daniel Bourque: Yes, which doesn't mean that they aren't terrible, and it doesn't mean that in the case of all these people you don't need to keep them [locked] away to protect us from them, protect the vulnerable and the weak from them. But, I think, you also have to protect them from themselves.

EDGE: What have you got coming up for other projects?

Daniel Bourque: For the last few years I've done a lot of Hub stuff and I've usually done fringe festival productions. Last summer John Geoffrion and I took his Shakespeare adaptation, 'Bad Hamlet,' to the Providence Fringe. It's really off the wall; it's a condensation of 'Hamlet' with the good text of it and the bad text of it, and the bad text of it mangles all the famous speeches. We've got it in as a couple proposal to a couple of fringe festivals and we're waiting to see about that. I also coordinate the Hub Staged Reading Program. I have a couple of those I plan on doing for the Hub in the next few months and I hope to see you all there.

"Coyote On A Fence" runs March 31 - April 15 at the First Church in Boston. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.hubtheatreboston.org/coyote-on-a-fence.html

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.