It’s easy enough to understand the objective ‘exonerated,’ but to grasp the true nature of vindication and the myriad of emotions it entails one must either feel it or witness its revelation first hand. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s verbatim play The Exonerated provides an education in the true meaning of the former and gives you a deeper understanding of the latter.
It’s not easy viewing. The play consists of six true stories of people, wrongfully accused of crimes, who were sent to death row to await their end. Blank and Jensen based the piece on 60 interviews with people who had been sentenced to die and who were subsequently freed by the State. With a few exceptions, each word spoken comes from legal documents, court transcripts, letters, or interviews and is delivered in a play lasting 98 minutes – and it’s a brutal 98 minutes.
The production is simply staged: ten actors, lined up in a row, sit in high bar chairs, with their script in front of them; they take their turn in the spotlight – literally – to tell their individual story. In the hands of director Bob Balaban, this minimalist set-up, with no props and limited sound effects, intensifies the bleakness of the chilling injustice and focuses your attention entirely on the stories. This is performance and theatre in its purest form.
Some of the cast members are permanent, while others – including Stockard Channing, Brian Dennehy and Chris Sarandon -are on rotation. Dennehy plays Gary Gauger, a man accused of killing his parents, who is led into confessing by being asked to provide a ‘vision statement’ of how he might have killed his parents if, you know, he had actually done it; David Keaton plays high school student Curtis McClarin and Robert Earl Hayes plays JD Williams, both men who are accused of sex crimes.
Chris Sarandon plays Kerry Max Cook, arrested at 19 years old and incarcerated for 22 years; he conveys his experience with a depth sorrow as he narrates the physical horrors of prison life and the damning effect which his wrongful arrest had on his family including the murder of his older brother.
Delroy Lindo, as Delbert Tibbs, is the spine of the piece; fittingly he sits in the middle of the line, philosophizing and highlighting the prisoners’ despair and resilience (including that of those whose stories are not told here). “How do we, the people, get outta this hole, what’s the way to fight?” he asks, before adding: “It is not easy to be a poet here. Yet I sing. I sing.”
Stockard Channing, as Sunny Jacobs, has perhaps the most involving tale to tell. Jacobs is an amiable vegetarian, her husband a peaceful hippie and they are as far from murderers as one can imagine. Yet, through a series of bad decisions that could rival any Shakespearean tragedy they find themselves accused of killing two policemen. Subsequently Sunny spends 15 years in jail despite the actual culprit confessing three years later but not before her husband is sent to the chair. Horrifyingly, due to several technical malfunctions, his gruesome execution took three attempts with each attempt lasting almost a minute. In soft tones, Channing expertly delivers a story which is in turn horrific, romantic and optimistic, and which includes descriptions of the impounded couple’s literary management of their marriage including their sex life through coded words.
Completing the cast are Amelia Campbell, April Yvette Thompson, Jim Bracchitta and Bruce Kronenberg, who double up as wives, judges, prosecutors and policemen.
If there’s one place where the production falls a little short it’s in the use of Tibbs’ story to bookend the play. While Lindo assumes this mantle with admirable style and grace and has an undeniably commanding presence, interestingly, his story is one of the least gripping. His “yet we sing” refrain knits the narratives together yet there’s an awkwardness at the end as Lindo asks Curtis McClarin, as Hayes, to “sing”; McClarin commands the rain to stop and it obeys. It’s the first moment of overt fiction in the piece and such deliberate theatricality seems out of place in what has been, up to then, a piece of beautiful simplicity.
The play made its debut at the Culture Project in 2002 and has toured extensively since. It is the kind of work that demands to be cycled out regularly to ensure we don’t forget these injustices have occurred and continue to occur. It’s hard not to feel fury at the failings and official ineptitude on display. But the play also contains notes of hope. Each character has a different post-incarceration experience to relate; some spiral into drink and drugs, while others are able to marry and carry on in life. In Sunny’s case she took her revenge by spreading the word about the injustice she suffered while still seeking out the good and the beautiful in life. The appearance on stage of the real Sunny Jacobs after the curtain call was quite a moment. Small and walking with a cane, she displays the bright disposition you imagine after hearing her story. It’s difficult not to be moved as she moves across the stage and says, “I have been fighting to end the death penalty because I just feel that as a society we can do better”.
This perhaps is where the true power of the play lies, in reminding its audience that even when you live in a country like the USA, with all the expectation and sense of entitlement that brings, nothing should ever be taken for granted, most especially one’s personal freedom.