Many of us who’ve never experienced it can be said to have a passing interest in the prison system. Like hospitals, there’s something morbidly fascinating about life lived in an artificial environment, and our healthy distrust of what happens when our lives are taken out of our hands by people in authority is obvious when you look at the popularity of documentaries such as Making a Murderer.
For many reasons, this topic evokes strong emotions in a number of people. Charlotte Blackburn, however, has taken that fascination one step further. Her one-woman show, Edgar and Me, lays bare an unlikely friendship that’s spanned four and a half years, between herself and Edgar Garcia – an inmate at Terra Haute prison, who’s currently on death row.
As the audience enters into space at Theatre Deli, Charlotte sits behind a desk writing a letter. On the surface in front of her are letters sent to her by Edgar. She wears tracksuit bottoms and a white T-shirt – prison wear, we’re meant to assume – and the only other addition to the stage is a projector screen set-up at her back.
With this staging, Charlotte is the focus. But this, we learn, is only so that she is better placed to shine a spotlight on the real subject of this story. On one hand, this is Edgar, her friend from worlds away. But on the other, neither she nor Edgar are what we’re here to talk about; we’re here to talk about prison, about death row, about how a person changes from one day to the next, and about what it says about us, that an institution like death row still exists in 2016.
A Human Connection
Charlotte started writing to Edgar when she was 19, a tale she tells with ease and humour, as she relays her family’s mixed reactions to her unusual choice. Over the course of an hour, she brings us into the world shared between her and Edgar, and the strength of this show reveals itself in the moments of humanity that shine through their story.
Charlotte is a strong storyteller. The narrative she shares with Edgar is also a fascinating one and one that an audience can’t fail to be captivated by. By mixing the clearly strong friendship she and Edgar share, alongside subtle details of prison life, and haunting announcements over the speaker system that reveal the ways in which a prisoner is interacted with on their final day on death row, the audience is asked to question a number of things.
Thankfully, Charlotte never reveals the reason Edgar is on death row – a sensible choice, which allows us to judge his character free from the bias of a courtroom, and without the tendency to think as judge and jury. Is it fair to separate a man from his crimes? Well, perhaps not always, no. But because Charlotte made this choice, we are better able to appreciate Edgar’s clearly artistic and introspective nature, through the prism of Charlotte’s friendship with him – as opposed to the most judgemental ways in which a prisoner would ordinarily be viewed.
It’s this more human way of seeing, that removes this show from its status as a mere curio, and makes it into a meaningful piece of art that’s worth watching.
The decision allows Charlotte to question the nature of death row and the American justice system free from judgement or scorn. It also allows us to build our own connection to Edgar, and Charlotte’s delicate handling of this topic means we laugh with her when she reads the chosen extracts of their correspondence she finds funny, and empathise with her and with Edgar when the speakers blare across the room and seek to dehumanise him again.
Like most people, I think, I looked up Edgar’s case after the show, and what was fascinating was that even after learning about his crimes, I was no longer able to judge him simply as a prisoner to be punished. I thought of him as a person, as well.
Edgar has now been on death row for ten years. There are some inmates who have lived for more than thirty years on death row before being executed. At one point, Charlotte asks us if we are the same person we were ten years ago; if the mistakes we might make today would be the same as the mistakes we might have made in previous decades.
The answer, of course, is no. And that leaves us thinking: is it fair to execute someone for a crime committed by a different version of themselves, thirty years previously? Are you even really executing the same person after all that time? These are questions I don’t have the answers to, but they are questions that need to be asked.
Edgar and Me might be about one man, one woman, and one friendship on the surface; but it’s also about people, about what makes us human, the ways in which we judge the changing ‘I’ day-to-day, and the flaws in the American justice system that may render the very concept of ‘death row justice’ meaningless.
Ultimately, Charlotte’s show is a thoughtful and well-handled one. She is engaging to watch, and although some of the transitions between projector, performance, and speakers were occasionally a little clumsy, the heart of the piece was always in evidence. Personally, I enjoyed the show far more in the moments when Charlotte seemed to “forget” that the audience was there. As a performer, she is more powerful when speaking on a topic close to her heart, and forgetting that she’s following a loosely written script that must be performed.
Edgar, meanwhile, shares some of the spotlights, and it’s him we leave the room thinking about. In the end, I’m not sure I needed to know about his crimes – although of course, I had to find that out for myself. All I really needed to know, was that he is a person; and that is why Charlotte’s show is such an interesting and disconcerting experience.
Have you seen Edgar and Me? Let us know in the comments below.