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Jail Break

The stories of six people wrongly accused of murder come to haunting life

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 12/2/2009

The Exonerated

At the Everyman Theatre through December 14

"The State of Texas executed me over a thousand times, man," says Kerry Cook (played by Tim Getman), "and it just keeps doin' it." The tall, thin man sits in a chair at the Everyman Theatre, still alive and able to make such a statement because new evidence surfaced to overturn his conviction for a murder he never committed. The court exonerated him, but the court couldn't take away the memories of the gang rapes he suffered in prison or the scars of knife wounds. He never made it to the electric chair, but he still dies a little each day.

Exonerated, a docudrama edited from hundreds of hours of interviews by New York actors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, is an odd mixture of elation and despair. The six stories told during the 90-minute show illustrate the triumph of justice over injustice as six former inmates, who were convicted of murders they didn't commit, are eventually freed from death row. They got their freedom back, they got their names cleared, but they could never get back those lost years.

"It is dangerous to dwell too much on things," says Delbert Tibbs (Bill Grimmette), one of the six. "To wonder who or why or when, to wonder how, is dangerous." It is better to forget the terrible past and to concentrate on the brighter future, all six say in one way or another. But they can't quite do it; each one compulsively recounts the circumstances that brought him or her to the door of execution before being saved by an idealistic law student, a deathbed confession, or a DNA sample.

It's that sense of danger, that realization that innocence is no safeguard against prison and all its brutality, that no redemption can completely erase past mistreatment, that makes Exonerated much more than a political documentary. This is drama that crackles with tension.

This is the second top-notch production of the show that Baltimore has enjoyed in the past 16 months. The Mobtown Theatre mounted a terrific version ("The Wrongly Accused," Stage, July 9, 2008) last year, and Everyman is now offering an even better production. This new staging is presented only on Monday nights (The Mystery of Irma Vep is there the other six nights), so you only have a few chances to see one of the year's strongest theatrical events.

Everyman has assembled a remarkable acting company over the years, a pool of gifted local actors that form the core of each production. Three members of that company--Deborah Hazlett, Jefferson Russell, and Megan Anderson--provide the backbone for Exonerated. By bringing out all the messy contradictions of her role as Sunny Jacobs, Hazlett not only gives the show its focal point, but rescues it from mere liberal hand-wringing. Sunny may not have been guilty of the murder that sent her to death row, but she was guilty of one bad decision after another. She stayed with her drug-dealing common-law husband, she took their young child along on a drug delivery, she joined her husband in a stolen police car, and she lied to the police after they were arrested. With her jutting jaw and chopped-off strawberry-blonde hair, Hazlett often waves her hands in front of her face, as if shooing away all those troublesome facts. Sunny may be less than saintly, the play implies, but even flawed human beings deserve justice.

Russell plays Robert Earl Hayes, an African-American racetrack worker who gets picked up by the police when his white ex-girlfriend winds up murdered. There's no evidence linking him to the crime, just his past association and the frisson of black/white sex. Robert defiantly insists he has nothing to apologize for, but it's clear from the way Russell slouches in his chair and turns his head sideways that he's uncomfortable talking about it in front of his African-American girlfriend Georgia (Michelle Procter Rogers), especially as she chimes in to correct every mistake she thinks he's making in his story. Their affectionate bickering is just one example of the frequent humor that alleviates the grimness of the show.

Anderson plays the woman who married Kerry after he was finally released from death row, and her face lights up like a newlywed's each time he refers to her. Grimmette plays Delbert, an African-American who got picked up for a murder committed in Florida while hitch-hiking across Mississippi. The one character not confined to a chair; Delbert strolls about the stage, reciting poetry, telling his story and waxing philosophical like the bohemian conscience of the show. With his tilted beret and deep-throated, rueful chuckle, Grimmette is perfect for the part.

All these characters and all their dialogue are based on interviews with real people and, miraculously, they remain real people on the Everyman stage, never turning into mere political symbols or saintly martyrs. Without benefit of sets (just nine stools and a white backdrop), props or blocking, director James Bunzli and his stellar cast provide no easy morals, just the rich drama of six people happy to be freed from prison but still resentful that they were there at all--six folks so unexceptionable that they might easily have been you or me.

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