Volume 75, Number 22 | October 19 - 22, 2005

Theater

“KARLA”
By Steve Earle
Directed by Bruce Kronenberg
Opens October 20
Tickets $15
Culture Project
45 Bleecker Street
(212-352-3101; 45bleecker.com)

Photo by Glen Rose

Alt-country legend Steve Earle changes his tune with “Karla,” his first play, which opens Thursday, October 20 at the Culture Project.

The Anti-Executioner’s Song

By Jerry Tallmer
When all else is forgiven George W. Bush—Iraq, New Orleans, the Supreme Court, Social Security, the pet goat storytelling on the morning of 9/11—there will be those who remember Karla Faye Tucker, and Steve Earle will be one of them.

Karla Faye Tucker, put to death by lethal injection on February 3, 1998, was the first woman executed in the United States since 1984, and the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.

“She was one of the 156 or something people who was executed on Bush’s watch as governor of Texas,” country music’s Steve Earle—a Texan himself—said during a rehearsal break last week of his play “Karla” at the Culture Project.

“She was the one he mocked,” Earle specified, tacking on a passing imitation of smug, smirking George W. Bush’s whimper of “Please don’t kill me!” in the purported voice of murderess Tucker.

“All this to show how tough he was on crime in the run-up to the 2000 election. But it was so cold, his [poll] numbers plummeted the next day. His advisors got to him, and no one was executed in Texas for the next couple of years. Then as soon as the election was over, they went right back to executing as many as they ever had.”

The Karla Faye Tucker of Earle’s drama (actress Jodie Markell) is the the end product, of—what else?—a chaotic, abused, screwed-up childhood and family background. A born-again Christian, on trial and on death row, she has now found God—or more specifically, Jesus.

There is room for skepticism here, and Earle wryly acknowledges that at a reading of an earlier version of the work, one woman in the audience declared: “This is beautiful, but if I hear the word ‘Jesus’ one more time, I’m going to scream.”

“So I’ve tried to eliminate redundancy,” Earle said. “I’m not a Christian, I’m not a Jew, I’m not a Muslim, I’m not a Buddhist, but I do believe there is a God, and it’s not me. I’m a recovering addict—mainly heroin—and the way I stay clean, 11 years now, requires believing in a power greater than myself.

“I do believe Karla was for real. I never met her,” playwright Earle said, “but I interviewed at least 50 people who really knew her, including the brother of one of her [two] victims, a [death penalty] abolitionist himself. So I think that person who was executed was not the person who was convicted—and now all I have to do is convince the audience.”

The 50-year-old Grammy-winning composer-singer and death-penalty activist has had a life almost as hectic as Karla Faye Tucker’s own.

“Born in Virginia, my father in the Army, raised in San Antonio. Been singing since, oh, you know, since I wanted to be a cowboy or fireman. Out of the house at 15, to Nashville at 19, on the move ever since.”

And lots of ladies all along the way, from the girl who at 14 went off and had an abortion and never told him till afterward, to the mother of sons Justin, 23, and Ian, 18, to Allison Moorer, the singer-songwriter Earle married just a month ago.

And then there was Sara—Sara Sharpe, aspiring actress, head of the Tennessee Coalition Against the Death Penalty—“whom I met and fell in love with in 1997, and lived with for five and a half years, and for whom I wrote this play, and who finally went off with her kid’s soccer coach, the most embarrassing experience in my whole life.”

Earle’s own opposition to the death penalty began, he thinks, when at age 12, in 1967, he saw the movie “In Cold Blood” and then went and read the Truman Capote book from which it was made. He also later read Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.”

In 1998, the year of Karla Faye’s execution, he spent a lot of time around death row in that state. “Women and men are kept in different [jail] houses in Texas,” he says, “but are executed in the same place.

“I knew 11 of those guys, three of whom went even then. All are now gone. It ended for me by witnessing the execution of Jonathan Nobles” — who departed quoting (more or less) from 1st Corinthians, like another doomed Johnny, in Carol Reed’s great “Odd Man Out”.

It was Alan Buchman, head of the Culture Project at 45 Bleecker Street, who put Earle together with Bruce Kronenberg. Kronenberg would go on to direct various readings of the work in progress and to stage it at 45 Bleecker Street.

“In between,” says Steve Earle, “I made a couple of records and other stuff. Making records is my day job. At the time I swore I’d never write another play, but I’ve already started on another one. And on a novel—‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’—like the Hank Williams song. It’s a little over half-finished.”

One of the readings of an earlier “Karla” was here in New York during the Republican Convention of 2000—“just to fuck the Republicans”—and to keep Karla Faye Tucker safely in the arms of Jesus, or wherever she is. 

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