A short play about killing

Bruce Graham's new drama was inspired by his correspondence with James Beathard, an inmate on Death Row in Texas. But it's not an 'issue' play, he tells Daniel Rosenthal - it's a human tragedy

Ask the American playwright Bruce Graham about the origins of
Coyote on a Fence, the Death Row drama that has its British premiere in Manchester this evening, and he can pinpoint the exact moment of conception. At home one day in 1997, he read a story in
The Philadelphia Inquirer about James Beathard, a convicted killer and editor of the Texas
Death Row Journal, a tabloid published by an anti-death-penalty group, in which Beathard wrote obituaries of his fellow inmates at the prison in Huntsville, Texas. The obituaries always looked for the positive and never referred to the men's crimes, Beathard told journalists. "Everyone, even your worst enemy," he said, "deserves some honour and respect after they die."

Ask the American playwright Bruce Graham about the origins of Coyote on a Fence, the Death Row drama that has its British premiere in Manchester this evening, and he can pinpoint the exact moment of conception. At home one day in 1997, he read a story in The Philadelphia Inquirer about James Beathard, a convicted killer and editor of the Texas Death Row Journal, a tabloid published by an anti-death-penalty group, in which Beathard wrote obituaries of his fellow inmates at the prison in Huntsville, Texas. The obituaries always looked for the positive and never referred to the men's crimes, Beathard told journalists. "Everyone, even your worst enemy," he said, "deserves some honour and respect after they die."

Graham had spent most of the previous two years working on film and TV scripts dominated by short scenes and had been looking for a story that would allow him to write long, uninterrupted stretches of dialogue. "So when I read about James Beathard trying to find something good to say about people that we all consider monsters, sometimes rightly so," he explains, "the drama of it just jumped out at me."

He wrote to Beathard, enclosing two earlier plays - Minor Demons, about a lawyer trying to win back his wife, and Moon over the Brewery, an upbeat family comedy - and by chance they got through the prison vetting system. "I used stationery from a theatre I was working in, and for some reason they thought I was a publisher. Publishers are allowed to send things to prisoners, but a stranger off the street, like me, can't."

The Huntsville authorities would not let Graham visit Beathard, who had already been on Death Row for more than 12 years, or speak to him on the phone, so letters were their only means of communication. "James was very wary because he'd been burnt in interviews before," Graham says, "and his first couple of letters were very formal." Gradually, he won Beathard's confidence, and their correspondence became more personal. Graham sent Beathard pictures of his four-year-old daughter, Kendall (the prisoner's response, "She's an absolute angel! How can you discipline someone with a face like that?", features in Coyote on a Fence), and Beathard revealed more about life behind bars and his own story.

In 1984, Beathard was unemployed and desperate to raise the cash he needed to fight a child-custody battle with his ex-wife. A friend, Gene Hathorn Jnr, duped him into taking part in a non-existent drug deal. While Beathard waited nearby, Hathorn shot dead his own father, stepmother and stepbrother. A complex series of plea bargains and double-crosses, with Beathard refusing to perjure himself to face a lesser charge, ended up with both men sentenced to death. When Hathorn subsequently retracted his false testimony, Beathard's conviction stood on a technicality: new evidence had to be introduced within 30 days of a trial, and that deadline had passed.

Such a clear-cut miscarriage of justice is perfect documentary material, and indeed Beathard's case attracted the attention of a BBC television team, but it lacks the moral ambiguity that fuels the best prison drama. So, once Graham felt that he had done sufficient background research on Death Row and had Beathard's voice in his head from the letters, the time came "to push those things out of the way, separate myself from the truth and play make-believe". He wanted "to make the audience feel repulsion and sympathy" for Death Row inmates, whereas Beathard inspired only the latter emotion.

In Coyote on a Fence, therefore, Beathard becomes John Brennan, a former prison drugs-and-alcohol counsellor, sentenced to death for killing a drug dealer, and now penning obituaries for the Death Row Advocate. His next subject will be his new neighbour, Bobby Rayburn, an illiterate, anti-Semitic racist who has burnt to death 37 black churchgoers. The surrogate for Graham, whose wife and daughter are Jewish, is Samuel Fried, a Jewish New York Times reporter with a young daughter, who comes to interview Beathard. The play follows the months leading up to Rayburn's execution, and Graham switches between Brennan-Fried conversations, Brennan's increasingly paternal relationship with Rayburn and retrospective observations by a black prison guard, Shawna, addressed to another, unseen journalist.

When Graham sent the script of Coyote to Beathard, he received a card saying: "Great job. Reviews to follow." And after its premiere in Cincinnati and subsequent productions in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Dallas, it reaches England with Ben Cross as Brennan and Alex Ferns, the Scot still best known as the vicious Trevor in EastEnders, as Rayburn.

Ferns was last seen on stage as an Afrikaner tapeworm in Antony Sher's I.D. at the Almeida Theatre, in north London. "When I read Coyote," he says, "I was up for a part in some really dodgy American B-grade film, which was going to pay quite good money, but this is such a good play that there wasn't really a choice to make. Despite his dark side, Bobby is very funny, and through the relationship with Brennan he develops a kind of sensitivity. But there's an awful line near the end when you realise that he's never going to change."

The play's director, Sarah Esdaile, thinks that Coyote will speak as directly to British audiences as it has done to American ones, "because it deals with human-rights issues that transcend guilt or innocence and the fact that we don't have the death penalty. It's not a didactic, 'issue' play, but at the same time I don't want people to come out just thinking: 'That was nice, dear. What shall we have for dinner?'" That explains why she has set up audiovisual presentations in the foyer outside the Royal Exchange Studio, carrying news of the latest US executions - prisoners' crimes and their last words. There's additional background information in the Coyote programme, including a chart topped by Texas, whose staggering total of 316 executions since 1976 (Virginia is in second place, with 89) includes James Beathard, put to death by lethal injection on 9 December 1999, after Governor George W Bush, as he was then, ignored the many pleas on his behalf.

Graham recalls learning of Beathard's demise in unnerving fashion: "My wife and I had been away for a week, and when we got home there was a letter from James. The first words were: 'By the time you read this, I'll probably be dead.' I didn't finish the letter, but ran upstairs, got on the internet and found that he'd been executed two nights before. I had all these productions of Coyote coming up and, at the risk of sounding cynical, all the fun of my death-penalty play suddenly went out the window. For a while, I felt I was making money from James's tragedy. Part of me was saying: 'I hope I made the last year more interesting for James and took his mind off things', and part of me said: 'Did I use him? Should I have tried to help his case?'"

Esdaile says another of Beathard's letters to Graham hit her almost as hard. "He writes: 'I've got one favour to ask you. If this play gets on, can it be done in England?' That was an extraordinary thing to read, once we knew this production was a done deal. In rehearsals, we've all felt we have a vicarious relationship with James."

'Coyote on a Fence', The Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (0161-833 9833) tonight to 10 April; then Duchess Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 1103) from 22 April

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