Swithin Fry shines a spotlight on death row and unjust trial systems in a play about his condemned penpal, Tim Coleman
Dear Tim: Echoes of Death Row is a one-man show, written and performed by retired adult literacy teacher Swithin Fry. It tells of his unlikely friendship with Tim Coleman, Inmate A328139 at Chillicothe Correctional Institution, Ohio. After volunteering with Human Writes, a charity supporting death row prisoners, Fry was shocked to find strong evidence to suggest that his new penpal, Tim, was innocent. He has been supporting Tim’s right to a retrial ever since.
Tim was convicted of murder 18 years ago. The trial was later ruled ‘constitutionally deficient’ due to insufficient evidence and suspected racial discrimination against the defendant. Following the verdict, another man confessed to the crime. Despite this, ‘major procedural hurdles’ have thus far prevented Tim’s case from being re-opened, and he is now down to his last appeal. If this fails, Tim could be executed in 2017.
We saw Swithin Fry’s performance in the intimate back room of the King’s Head Theatre Pub in London. The decor, in tune with the mood of the performance, is simple, raw and sincere. Fry stands on an un-raised stage with two green fold out chairs, a mugshot of Tim and a small collection of letters.
Although this is a theatrical production, it is instantly clear that Swithin does not intend to razzle-dazzle us with a red-curtain spectacle. From the minimal set to Fry’s unpolished American accent, the play is modest, outspoken and disarmingly humane.
I am very aware that this is not a movie or a novel. This is the murder of a real woman … I just had to be honest.
This alliance between Cotswolds dweller and US convict catches the audience off guard, and challenges depersonalised views of prison inmates. The one-hour performance leaves us unanimously hopeful that Tim will receive fair legal representation, and seriously questioning Ohio’s death penalty system.
We asked Swithin Fry about his decision to take Tim’s issue to the stage, and what he hopes the play will achieve.
Swithin Fry My friendship for Tim is the driving force behind Dear Tim: Echoes of Death Row. He asked me to start an international campaign for his cause, and at first I had no idea how. I’m passionate about playwriting, and had recently started acting with my local am-dram society. Doors opened at the right moment, and I was lucky enough to be mentored by the amazing actors Suzie Donkin and Trevor Smith. They helped me to develop the show, to dramatise and amplify it.
I felt that campaigning for Tim’s cause through the theatre would appeal to a wider audience than straight political talk. Performing is also cathartic, and helps me to cope emotionally with my friend’s situation. I include comic moments, partly because I think subjects as serious as this need a bit of humour, and partly as a tribute to Tim himself. Despite being on death row for 18 years, he is still incredibly cheerful, and has a tremendous sense of humour.
Tim hasn’t been allowed to see footage of the show, but at the end of each performance I play the audience recorded messages that he reads to me during our Skype visitations. Because he’s reaching the end of his appeals, the messages are powerful and sometimes very emotional. It’s important for people to hear Tim’s voice: it makes them realise that he’s not just a name or a number but a real human being. I also sent Tim a flyer for the show via an email attachment – the design was very impressive, and he was really chuffed!
The support Tim and I have received for the show is overwhelming. Last year, Tim received 15 birthday cards from audience members. A young London barrister who’d seen the show recently put me in touch with the American charity Amicus, which aids overworked, underpaid state defense attorneys in areas they don’t have the funding or time to pursue. Amicus is currently contacting Tim’s attorneys to see if they are willing to work with them, and I can’t see why they wouldn’t because Amicus’ reputation is very good. All this is bringing Tim so much hope, which is brilliant.
I’m currently writing a book about Tim’s story, aimed at children in their early teens. My grandchildren are that age, and I think it’s important for young people like them to realise that there are serious things going on in the world. In February 2016 I’m also going to run a workshop about how to do a solo show for teenagers at the Croydon Youth Theatre Organisation. I love writing plays for children, and have one children’s musical that I would really like to develop. If Amicus is allowed to take up Tim’s case, maybe I’ll have time to do so.
There But For Fortune by Joan Baez is used as incidental music in Dear Tim: Echoes of Death Row.
Dear Tim: Echoes of Death Row has been described as ‘fascinating’ by Amnesty International, and ‘powerful’ by BBC Radio Sussex.
To see more information about Tim’s case and campaign, or to send Tim a message of support, visit Swithin Fry’s website.