The Exonerated, a play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, was first performed in Los Angeles by the Actors’ Gang, on April 19, 2002, directed by the playwrights. The play premiered in New York City on October 10, 2002, at 45 Bleecker Theater, directed by Bob Balaban. It was first published in 2004.
The play tells the true story of five American men and one American woman who were convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. Between them these six people spent over one hundred years on death row before the criminal justice system finally corrected its errors and freed them.
Blank and Jensen constructed the play entirely out of interviews they conducted with the former prisoners and from various court documents and case files. The lines of the play spoken by the characters are the actual words used by the exonerated prisoners. They tell their stories plainly, and the result is a shocking exposure of police and prosecutorial misconduct that led to the conviction and condemnation of the innocent. The stories are mini-chronicles of lives destroyed and precious time wasted—one man spent twenty-two years on death row—but the play also has its moments of humor as well as being a testimony to the fact that hope and faith can survive in even the bleakest of situations.
The Exonerated was highly successful, running off-Broadway for two years and over six hundred performances. Celebrity actors, including Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh, and many others, all accepted roles in the play at various times in its run. Illinois governor George Ryan attended a special performance of the play and later said it was a factor in his decision only a month later to grant clemency to all inmates of death row in Illinois.
The Exonerated takes place on a bare stage. The actors sit on armless chairs with their scripts on music stands in front of them. There are no sets or special costumes. The play is seamless; there are no blackouts and no intermission.
The first character to speak is Delbert, who acts as a kind of chorus, fading in and out of the action. He speaks in poetic phrases and spells out a warning: “It is dangerous to dwell too much on things: / to wonder who or why or when, to wonder how, is dangerous.” He thinks out loud about the best way to approach the problem. Could he emulate Richard and Ralph and Langston? He is referring to African American authors who speak out boldly in their works about racism: Richard Wright, author of Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945); Ralph Ellison, who wrote The Invisible Man (1952); and Langston Hughes, one of the leading poets of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. It is not easy to be a poet, Delbert says, “Yet I sing.”
After this somber beginning, the lights go up on Sue and her husband Gary. Gary tells his story. One day he went as usual to the motorcycle shop at his parents’ farm. They were not there, but he thought nothing of it, since they had been planning a trip. When they had not returned the next morning, he called the police. He then found his father’s body in a back room. About an hour and a half later, the police found the body of Gary’s mother in a trailer in front of the house. Her throat had been slashed. Within hours, Gary had been arrested.
After some more poetic lines from Delbert, the lights go up on Robert and his wife Georgia. Robert was working as a groom at a racetrack where a white girl was raped and killed. A short scene is then acted out behind Robert, in which he is interviewed by two white policemen, who claim they know that he killed the girl.
Robert then continues. He says he had dated the murdered girl, and at his trial he knew he would be convicted, since there were eleven whites and only one black on the jury. He makes a reference to the celebrated case of O. J. Simpson in 1995, suggesting that...
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