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Loss of Innocence

With its true stories of wrongly convicted death row inmates, The Exonerated transcends theater. logo
How often does a piece of theater have the power to change people's ideas on basic social/moral issues? Ever since The Exonerated began preview performances last week in a production by The Culture Project at the 45 Bleecker Theater, audience members who were already on record as opposing capital punishment but didn't have particularly strong feelings about it have emerged from the show with a new horror at the mind-boggling unfairness often involved in charging, trying, and sentencing people to death. And presumably, given the new play's harrowing accounts of justice perverted, any pro-death penalty folks who might happen to attend will have to do a lot of rethinking and soul-searching on the subject.

The Exonerated makes its visceral effect by focusing on the all-too-true stories of six innocent people -- Delbert Tibbs, Robert Earl Hayes, Sonya "Sunny" Jacobs, Kerry Max Cook, David Keaton, and Gary Gauger -- who spent years on death row before finally being released. The current, starry cast of the show includes Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh, and Sara Gilbert under the direction of Bob Balaban, and word is that such other celebs as Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Steve Buscemi -- who appeared in readings of the play in the fall of 2000 -- will be rotating in and out of the cast during the production's open-ended run. (The actors sit at music stands and read from scripts but, rest assured: The Exonerated is one of the most highly theatrical shows you'll ever ever see.)

The show began previews on October 1 and officially opens tonight (October 10). Earlier this week, TheaterMania spoke with Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the married couple of actors who crafted this unforgettable theater piece.


THEATERMANIA: The Exonerated is almost indescribably moving in and of itself, but even more so on the night I attended because several of the people whose stories are told in the show were in the audience. I hear that some of them have actually attended several performances.

ERIK JENSEN: That's right. Of course, they're all big supporters of the play, and they requested to come.

JESSICA BLANK: Sometimes, it's hard for them to sit through. But it's really interesting to talk to them about their different responses to watching their lives up there on stage.

Curtis McLarin as David Keaton
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
EJ: David Keaton and I were talking yesterday and he said that seeing the show was helping him want to write again, to put some of his poetry down. He said it makes him feel like he's not alone anymore.

TM: You make it clear that every word that's spoken in the play comes directly from the actual people, drawn from your interviews and from court transcripts. One of the things that's so striking is the eloquence of the exonerated.

JB: We interviewed 40 people on the phone and 20 people in person, so we had to narrow down the stories to a number that was manageable theatrically while making sure that they were representative of the issues. There were some other quite compelling stories told by equally eloquent people that didn't make it into the play. I had been involved with the [capital punishment] issue for a long time and I had expected everybody's stories to be really depressing and heartbreaking and filled with anger, but what we discovered in talking to people was that they are incredible survivors. To go through something like this and come out the other side, you have to evolve as a human being.

TM: I guess it shouldn't be surprising that seeing these stories dramatized is, somehow, far more unnerving than reading them in a newspaper.

EJ: My grandmother would probably get on me for sounding highfalutin, and I don't want to, but I always go back to the Greeks as an example. This kind of theater really has the potential to make us examine who we are. And that's the purpose of theater, isn't it? Otherwise, we would have done a documentary.

TM: Do you have hopes that The Exonerated will eventually be adapted for film or television?

EJ: We've been approached; that's all we can say right now.

TM: How did the project begin?

Jill Clayburgh as Sunny Jacobs
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
JB: We were at an anti-death penalty conference at Columbia University in the spring of 2000 and we attended a workshop where they had arranged a phone call from someone who was on death row in Illinois and looked very much like he was wrongfully convicted: His confession was tortured out of him and the guy who tortured him was found to have done so, but this man was still sitting on death row. He told his story in a very simple way [on the phone], just talking about wanting to come home -- and, within minutes, Erik and I and everyone else in the room had tears streaming down our faces. Then Erik, who was sort of new to activism around the death penalty, said: "Everyone here is already an activist. What do we do about the fact that these stories need to get out to the public?"

EJ: Actually, I was less eloquent than that. I'm a cynical New Yorker and I think I said something like, "You're preaching to the choir!"

JB: Erik and I started thinking about how to get around that problem. We're both actors, so we thought of theater and we had the idea for this play. We started doing research and, about a month later, we brought a proposal to Allan [Buchman], who runs the 45 Bleecker Theater. This was in April or May of 2000. He said, "I'll give you the theater if you can have something up by the fall."

EJ: We do want to stress that the play isn't didactic: We're not trying to make people be against the death penalty, we're just trying to start a conversation about it.

JB: We really feel that the stories speak for themselves. A lot of people haven't ever heard them. We get so many people coming up to us and saying, "Oh, my God, I had no idea that this kind of thing happens." Just last night, Richard Dreyfuss was talking to the audience [during the discussion after the show] about how there's no compensation at all [for those who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned], and everyone gasped. Most people don't realize that.

TM: After the performance I saw, I asked a question about whether prosecutors, judges, and so on are immune no matter how gross their misconduct has been.

EJ: It varies from state to state, but the deck is stacked against you if you're wrongfully convicted.

JB: In several states, it's illegal to sue the government. And in the states where it's not illegal, you have to prove that the prosecution willfully misled the jury. You basically have to prove intent, which is impossible. The response when someone does try to sue the prosecution is very often, "Sorry, the jury made the wrong decision. That's not our fault."

TM: You should send tapes of the show or copies of the script to those prosecutors.

True stories: Bradley Scott, Robert Earl Hayes,
Sunny Jacobs, Randall Padgett, and Delbert Tibbs
(Photo: Andrew Gordon)
EJ: We wish that some of them would come forward and say they're sorry. Of the 102 people who have been exonerated, there's only one prosecutor that I know of -- in Arizona -- who has apologized. He said, "We screwed up, we made a horrible mistake, I'm sorry."

TM: It starts with one, I guess.

JB: Yes, it does.

EJ: Please don't forget to make the point that we're actors; this project is something that we sort of stumbled across. We want to make sure that people -- especially other artists -- know that they can do stuff like this, too. We're honored that there's been such a strong response. Honestly, we never expected it. We thought we'd do our little show in a 99-seat theater somewhere for a couple of weeks and that would be it, but this has turned into something we never imagined.

JB: We had no idea what we were getting into.


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