The Wrongly Accused
Smart, Detailed Production Follows The Lives of Six People The Legal System Failed
The six main characters in The Exonerated are actual Americans who were put on death row for murders they didn't commit. In the oral histories that supply the text for this play, the six explain how they got caught up in the criminal justice system and were sentenced to death. Only after years of indignity and imprisonment were they finally set free.
The Exonerated isn't a political play, though. Both sides of the death-penalty debate agree that innocent people shouldn't be executed. Both sides of the law-and-order debate agree that innocent people shouldn't be locked up. The political debate is over what to do with guilty people. You can watch The Exonerated and come away still convinced that the guilty should be sent to the electric chair. It may be inconsequential as a piece of political propaganda, but it's quite moving as theater, for it reminds us how easy it is to get blamed for something we didn't do and how difficult it is to live with the consequences.
Playwrights Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank are gifted interviewers and editors who talked with dozens of people who had been wrongly condemned and from that pool selected six characters: two poor black men, two middle-class white men, a middle-class black man, and a poor white woman. They have created a theater piece that's often as powerful as Studs Terkel's Working, Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project, and Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.
In this production, five actors and an actress sit on tall chairs behind black music stands on a small riser in front of three large white posters (the goddess of justice, the Bill of Rights, and the scales of justice, all splattered with blood). Flanking the riser are four more performers, playing the spouses, siblings, lawyers, police officers, judges, and prison guards whose voices become part of the story. Scripts sit on the music stands before the actors, but for the most part, the written lines are ignored.
Louis Murray, an actor in a trim gray Afro and goatee and black T-shirt, begins the show by describing life in prison. "This is not a place for deep thoughts," he says, as the theater's speakers echo with the sound of steel doors slamming shut. The edited text wisely avoids philosophizing, focusing instead on the details of false accusations, rigged trials, and long years behind bars. The play does plumb the depths, but it does so by building on those specifics, not by glib sloganeering.
The first third of the show focuses on how the six got implicated in murders they didn't commit. Delbert Tibbs (Murray) was hitchhiking through Florida when someone got killed nearby. Gary Gauger (Robert Neal Marshall) discovered the slashed throats of his parents on the grounds of his gardening business and was tricked by the cops into speculating on how he might have done the murders had he blacked out.
Both Robert Earl Hayes (Aubrohn King) and Kerry Max Cook (Steve Sawicki) were accused of killing women they had once dated, even though there were other, more recent boy friends around. David Keaton (Anthony Sumpter) was picked up near a murder scene and harassed in jail for five days until he broke down. Sunny Jacobs (Kate Collins) was getting a ride from a friend who was a drug dealer when two cops stopped the car and the dealer shot them.
The six stories are woven together expertly so that one shocking scene of violence segues into a second, one false confidence leads to another, one dishonest cop anticipates the next, one incompetent public defender is succeeded by still more. The mechanics of these stories may be familiar from hundreds of movies and TV shows, but The Exonerated adds a better sense of what it's like to be caught within a trap with no escape hatch. There are waves of illusory hope, information-starved bewilderment, raging anger, and plunging despair.
White-on-black racism inevitably plays a role in these false accusations, and the three black convicts (and Hayes' finger-snapping, wisecracking wife, played by T.J. Buchanan-Robinson) vent their anger in that direction. Their anger is well deserved, but it's symptomatic of this show's sense of fairness that a brutal incident of black-on-white racism is also included.
The play's middle focuses on the lost years in incarceration, where the six protagonists faced not only the despair of being locked up and forgotten but also the added punishment of racist guards, prison rape, prison gangs, and rat-infested cells. The final part focuses on the belated emergence of the evidence that finally set them free--though usually only after protracted legal battles.
When this show was first done in New York, the cast included Charles Dutton, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. The Mobtown cast, expertly directed by Terry J. Long, isn't as illustrious but does a terrific job. Especially impressive are Murray as Delbert Tibbs and Marshall as Gary Gauger, for these two actors speak as if they're being interviewed for the first time, pausing and rubbing their foreheads as they search for just the right words to describe the nightmare that had befallen them.
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