'Exonerated' passes judgment on justice system
By Christopher Blank
January 12, 2007
"The Exonerated," at TheatreWorks, involves case studies of wrongly convicted people who were sent to death row.
January 12, 2007
In this, the television crime drama's Golden Age, it's easy to think that America's justice system deals with crime accurately and efficiently.
In the blink of a prime time hour, sleep-deprived cops collect evidence, make arrests, hand murder suspects over to the court system where brilliant attorneys get bulletproof convictions, and in the end, bad guys go to prison."The Exonerated," the highly compelling 2002 Off-Broadway play that opened last week at TheatreWorks under the auspices of Playhouse on the Square, starts off like a ripped-from-the-headlines true crime drama.
Six people -- white and black, five males and one female -- quietly take seats on the stage. Stark lighting gives the impression of an interrogation.
The first person, a hippie farmer from the Midwest, describes how on the day of his arrest, he found his parents with their throats cut in the back room of his house.
The next, a young black man, says he was convicted for raping and strangling a white woman with whom he'd previously had sex.
A gentle-natured woman named Sunny admits that she and her husband befriended a bad man, who would later shoot a police officer and then testify it was the couple who did it.
The three others have similar stories, and blame their subsequent convictions on racial prejudice, lazy cops, mistaken identities, forced confessions, etc.
In this crime drama, however, the bad guys are not punished.
Instead, good folks are sent off to death row.
One wishes that the slim program handed out at the show explained how "The Exonerated" came about -- a preface shared with viewers at the first productions in Los Angeles and New York.
Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen spent six weeks in the summer of 2000 interviewing 40 people who had been wrongly convicted.
The six case studies they used are true and written in words of the accused.
Sadly, these experiences aren't rare enough.
According to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that provides DNA testing for convicts, more than 185 people have been found innocent of major crimes since 1992 based on DNA evidence .
Considering that several characters in the play spent more than 20 years in prison, accurate and efficient doesn't exactly describe the American justice system.
And, like other shows that dramatize an injustice ("The Laramie Project" about Matthew Shepard is nearly standard repertoire now), "The Exonerated" provokes lively debate on evergreen legal questions.
In December, ethics charges were brought against the prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse team rape allegations for, among other tactics, withholding evidence. Critics claim the high-profile case helped him win an election.
The recent botched lethal injection of Angel Diaz in Florida, which caused Gov. Jeb Bush to postpone future executions, is similar to a bungled execution described in the play.
Death penalty proponents watching "The Exonerated" will have to wonder if a system that kills a handful of people like those in the show really works.
The seating at TheatreWorks is reminiscent of a jury box. The actors, under the direction of David Shouse, an MFA candidate at the University of Memphis, appear before us to state the facts of their cases and how their lives were affected.
The characters seem to bear the system no animosity. They are all warm, genial, often morbidly resigned to a fate that stole the best years of their lives.
"It definitely messes with your sense of personal power," jokes the poet Delbert Tibbs, one of the convicted characters who also serves as a kind of Greek chorus.
"This is the place for thoughts that do not end in concreteness," he concludes, urging viewers to stay open-minded.
Previous versions of "The Exonerated" have ranged from staged readings by movie stars to fully-realized productions with sets and movement.
Shouse takes a somber middle ground. The principal actors stay seated in chairs while a few performers in auxiliary roles of policemen, judges, wives, pop in from time to time to re-enact flashbacks.
The cast delivers engaging, concise performances. Principals are Michael Gravois, Jamie Mann, Jo Lynne Palmer, Jim Palmer, Ed Pollard and Corry Silc. Additional cast members are Phaith Frazier, Kim Howard, Michael Khanlarian and Chadwick Weymouth Rodgers.-- Christopher Blank: 529-2305