The true drama of Coyote on a Fence, Post5’s newest show, came after the performance: It’ll be the company’s last production in its Sellwood home. What’s more, ArtsWatch has learned, artistic directors Rusty Tennant, Paul Angelo, and Patrick Walsh tendered their resignations on Nov. 1.
While passing the traditional Post5 giving basket, Coyote lead actor Jeff Gorham told the audience the company had put on some good productions over the last five years, but this would be it in Sellwood. Board member Stefan Feuerherdt said Monday in an email that the company has found other spaces for the last productions of its current season, and will be exploring options for what’s next with Post5. Oregon ArtsWatch will report more as the story unfolds.
Almost anticlimactically, Coyote on a Fence has a lot going for it, beginning with a Death Row inmate named John Brennan, who has the sort of sensitive intelligence that we often underestimate in our stereotypes about the South. He carries a torch for the English language and its infinite possibility to tell a story with precision and care. His wardrobe is dictated by the times, doing hard time on Death Row. Post5’s Coyote on a Fence is a well-rounded look into prison and the people in its orbit.
Coyote’s playwright Bruce Graham had a correspondence in the ’90s with James Beathard, and based the character Brennan on him. In a heated custody battle over his daughter, Beathard, who needed to raise twelve grand to hire a lawyer, made a deal with the devil on the promise of a cut from an inheritance: His accomplice created a classic get-rich-quick crime by murdering his family and collecting on his father’s will. But payday never came. Instead they were convicted of triple homicide in their Texas prairie town. Both men sat on Death Row while George W. Bush was governor, and penned prison newsletters advocating for abolition of capital punishment. Beathard’s advocacy included obits of the soaring number of those sent to the Texas death machine. He said: “Everyone, even your worst enemy, deserves some honor and respect after they die.”
There’s a rich history of prison literature going back to Plato’s coverage of Socrates’ trial, and in our times with the popular Orange is the New Black. Playwright Graham wrote what he knew, and most of Coyote is based upon Beathard’s own words and life in the clink: “She’s an absolute angel! How can you discipline someone with a face like that?” Graham’s timing envelops the audience on an intimate level, the way that a comedian seems to be talking with just you. Director Paul Angelo creates a heart-wrenching production, but the gallows humor leaves just enough air to breathe in the suffocating atmosphere.
It’s unfortunate, but Graham’s play hasn’t shown signs of age in the almost 20 years since it was first staged. At Post5, Andrea White plays Shawna DuChamps, a prison guard who grew up in poverty and whose only job security is working for the town’s sole economic engine, the prison. Many towns dotting the United States landscape depend on the prison/industrial complex. Ontario, in Eastern Oregon, where the huge Snake River Correctional Institution sits, is one. The medium-security prison supplies most of the employment for the town, outside of the hospital and Walmart. In her own town, DuChamps struggles with her soul. Spending most of her time and overtime with the prisoners, she can be a brutal enforcer, but inside she’s come to know the convicts as people and formed an attachment on a certain level. Relaxed, still in uniform, leaning over a bar table, she knocks back shots and beer while giving confession to a reporter. She’s soaked up some of inmate Brennan’s erudite phrasing and shares the same walls with him. While her entrapment is paycheck to paycheck, Duchamps knows first hand the sociopath’s intricate web; they say they’re innocent victims of an unfair trial, a rigged jury, planted evidence, false testimony, corrupt cops, lawyers and judges. She doesn’t buy the last-strawman-standing argument. White breaks down like a woman at the walls of Troy: “They say, I’m a victim of society. How about your victims? Did they get an appeal?” She’s the long arm of the law with a caged heart. She copes with a plastic psyche, she doesn’t know and doesn’t care. When White’s character shoves her billy club into Brennan’s throat, beats the air out of his lungs and tosses him back into his cell like a dog in the pound, we know how much his life is worth.
It’s hard to watch Gorham’s Brennan being beaten by Duchamps. He spends most of his time as an armchair professor of letters, an orange-jump-suited Thoreau with a mission to write the last word on the men whose lives were ended biting down on a wet sponge as an electric current of 2,000 amps rocked them from this world. Gorham brings Brennan to life with nobility in a powerless situation, and puts our guts in the crosshairs. He writes epitaphs that ancient Romans would applaud for men who’ve carved up children with knives. He reads mail to his family, as if a castaway on a desert island. When he loses his temper, we start to get a hint that, like Duchamps, he’s also got a plastic psyche. He’s rewriting his own history and character in survival mode.
Brennan is complex, a devil on one shoulder, an angel on the other, a man whose behavior is faithful to the idea of “real” men. His shine starts to rub off in his meetings with Samuel Fried (Sam Dinkowitz), a New York Times investigative journalist. Fried is based on Graham, and both playwright and character have ties to the Jewish community. Fried is trying to get to the bottom of Brennan’s publication: Are the prisoners being mistreated? Is there a miscarriage of justice? He delivers the conversations we mull over in our own circles about the death penalty and how we would respond if one of our own was murdered. Brennan, who we guess,will be an enlightening interview, becomes more of a Ted Bundy. He digs for personal information from Fried, he’s defensive, he manipulates, he wants attention. Dinkowitz is the palpable presence of a dying breed. He listens with a soft shoulder and a sympathetic ear. He puts baby in a corner when he needs to. Dinkowitz turns to frenetic outrage with his tie whipping out of his collar, jacket vents pulled loose, and hands-on-hips indignation when a source is feeding him a fantasy for his own celebrity. Fried says what Brennan can’t. Brennan’s no Jean Valjean. He didn’t steal bread, he stole a life.
Recent Portland Actors Conservatory graduate Jacob Camp is Brennan’s cellmate, Bobby Alvin Reyburn. Slack-faced, shuffle-footed by a limp, and with a pasty-white complexion, he moves like a little boy trapped in a stunted body. Bobby isn’t based upon one person, but has a biography that carries on the tradition of many famous inmates. Like Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Leavenworth and Alcatraz, Bobby comes from a broken home and spends some time in juvie. Bobby is inducted into the orphan-to-prison pipeline.
His crime, too, comes from a long tradition. America’s first recorded arson of a black church came in 1822 is South Carolina, and churches remained targets of white supremacists through the civil rights era. Far from disappearing, such arsons appear to be once again on the rise: the most recent such hate crime occurred only days ago, on Nov. 1, 2016. In Sunday’s papers, Dylann Roof, who murdered six people in a historic black church in Charleston, N.C., last year, asked to commute his sentence to life, with the plea bargain of guilty. He would be a rare case of the feds executing a criminal, and prosecutors in their seven-page opinion noted Roof’s “demonstrated lack of remorse” for the cold-blooded killings. Bobby Alvin Reyburn is also a proud member of the the Aryan nation, whose only regret is that his victims were black instead of Jewish. He’s had few and far happy moments in his brief life, and he’s looking forward to his come-to-Jesus moment. The most complex character in Coyote, Camp gives us a Bobby who’s dangerous in his naivete, but man enough to own up to his crime, even if his confession comes from a place of madness.
Gorham’s last soliloquy as Brennan is a tear-welling “if this is a man” reflection by someone who knows first-hand the minutes between life and death. Director Angelo and Post5 make a fair, intelligent, and emotional examination from all sides of these complex issues.
When the conservative Anthony Kennedy became a justice of the Supreme Court in 1988 he was interviewed by Charlie Rose. One of Kennedy’s missions was to address prison reform. He said that most prisons have an invisible sign that quotes Dante’s “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Kennedy hoped his career would help bring significant change to the system and the people incarcerated would be given the tools to make good on a second chance. Kennedy’s position is that a prison is a reflection of how just a society is. It’s clear with new documentaries like 13th and plays like Post5’s Coyote on a Fence the debate is still on.