GENERAL CONVENTION 2003


DRAMA AT THE CONVENTION
Shows daily at the Episcopal Church of the Gethsemane

Joe & Andrew Doss: Dignity, drama and the death penalty

More than two decades after Ernest Knighton, Jr. was electrocuted for shooting a service station owner during a robbery in Bossier City, Louisiana, one of his lawyers, the Rt. Rev. Joe Morris Doss, still weathers difficult emotions. “I'm not a person who cries easily in public, but when I speak about Ernest I end up in tears,” he says.

It happened again just the other day. He and his son, Andrew Doss, co-authored a play called “Earnest” that chronicles Knighton's story, which shows daily at the Episcopal Church of the Gethsemane during General Convention. When he told Knighton's story to the play’s gospel choir, “I just choked up,” he says.

“Working for Ernest and going through the emotional journey, the rollercoaster, of fighting for a man's life, and then failing and having the man die, has had the most emotional impact on me of anything I've ever done.”

And he's done some tough stuff. When Fidel Castro opened the Cuban port at Mariel in 1980, Doss was one of two Episcopal parish priests in New Orleans who risked arrest and personal safety, defying both Cuban and American governments, to deliver more than 400 émigrés to freedom, a tale he chronicled in his book Let the Bastards Go.

“My Dad started Religious Leaders Against the Death Penalty with Sister Helen Prejean,” says Andrew. “Everyone knows the story of ‘Dead Man Walking.’ Well, Sister Helen was working on her case the same time Dad was working with Ernest. They were constantly conversing about that, they're still good friends, and Helen has a part in our play, like Dad had a part in ‘Dead Man Walking.’”

For years, the father and son had talked about writing something about Knighton. But three years ago during a long drive from New Jersey to Miami, Andrew finally took action. “I got out the laptop and said, ‘All right, Dad. Let's just start laying out some scenes and see what happens.’”

That was during Andrew's freshman year at Amherst. They finished the script a few months ago – just in time for Andrew to use it as his thesis.

“Knighton was baptized in prison,” says Andrew. “He had this incredible conversion, a full transformation where he turned around to really take charge of his life. He went from being someone like all of us, very controlled by outside circumstances, to becoming a man who realized that freedom can take place even while you're locked in a jail cell.”

In a way, this play is the fulfillment of a promise that Joe made to Knighton. “As Ernest was becoming a full self, he realized how much he wanted to take part in society and make a contribution,” says Andrew.

“Fortunately, he did a few things, like radio shows against his lawyer's advice that told kids to stay off drugs, and a video for the education department for the state of Louisiana. But his life was cut too short to really make a full contribution. So my Dad made a promise to him that he'd help tell his story as his contribution after his death, so that his life could pass on.”

Although the play deals with the death penalty, that's not what it's really about. It's not about Doss' fight to save a man's life. It's not about what's wrong with the death penalty. There are no villains. Instead, this is a story of spiritual transformation at the deepest levels.

“We live in a society that does not believe that people can change, really change, much less have their lives transformed,” says Joe. “In our society, the greatest doubt is not if God exists but whether people can really have their lives transformed by the Gospel. But I saw it. Seeing what this man did under the worst of circumstances is to know that the human spirit can flourish and that the Gospel has a message that is life changing.”

Perhaps most remarkable about “Earnest” is that it's performed by a cast of ex-convicts. “That's the most exciting part,” says Andrew. “I can't believe how much they've brought their own stories to this. I've been moved to tears by their stories, and by how much this seems to be affecting them.”

One ex-convict, just released from prison after 13 years, is still trying to get a job. “He said that being in this play is going to change his life,” says Andrew. “He wants to become a motivational speaker for young kids, and he says this all just coming right now, and this play big part of that.”

Father and son could have pushed for a fully staged production, with costumes, sets and local actors. But they purposely chose to do a staged reading with ex-convicts, says Joe. “Because Ernest would be so pleased by that.”

Posted by: Colleen O'Connor on Thursday, July 31, 2003 - 08:47 PM PST

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