THEATRICAL ADVOCACY, THE GOOD KIND
The Exonerated is theater as activism and proud of it, so it’s difficult to speak about it from a purely artistic perspective as mixing art and politics can be an unwieldy proposition. This show however, with its incontestable agenda and elegant, straightforward execution, is a brilliant exception.
Twenty years ago Peter J. Neufeld and Barry C. Scheck, in affiliation with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, started The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic which focuses on using DNA evidence to help exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals. Four years later Allan Buchman founded Culture Project, with the aim of “addressing critical human rights issues by creating and supporting artistic work that amplifies marginalized voices.” The Exonerated is one such work. Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the show tells the stories of six individuals who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they had nothing to do with. Currently in revival, having originally premiered to great acclaim in 2002, The Exonerated is a powerful and socially important show. It also happens to be riveting and – if such a light adjective can be used to describe a show with such weighty subject matter – entertaining.
With few exceptions all the words spoken in The Exonerated come from interviews with the six exonerees, private letters, and public records – trial transcripts, depositions, interrogation notes, etc. Ms. Blank and Mr. Jensen deftly assemble these texts, creating a compelling and moving narrative. And they don’t overseason it with distortions to make their point; admirably they mostly let the facts speak for themselves.
The actors for their part do an excellent job of bringing these texts to life. Reading scripts from music stands, they act their lines out with lovely subtlety and compassion. Bob Balaban’s sober direction and simple staging makes for a very intimate atmosphere that serves exceptionally well to drive those lines home. Except for a few precise lighting and sound cues (Tom Ontiveros and David Robbins respectively), which are used effectively either for emphasis or to convey a mood, there are no theatrical inventions, no tricks to distract one from the stories of these six people and the injustices, degradations, and misery they suffered. The individuals in question are Sunny Jacobs (Stockard Channing), Gary Gauger (Brian Dennehy), Delbert Tibbs (Delroy Lindo), Kerry Max Cook (Chris Sarandon), David Keaton (Curtis McClarin), and Robert Earl Hayes (the explosive JD Williams). Additional roles, of prosecutors, wives, cops, etc. are played by Jim Bracchitta, Amelia Campbell, Bruce Kronenberg and April Yvette Thompson.
To date, The Innocence Project has helped free 297 wrongfully convicted individuals (to add insult to injury most of these people cannot sue the parties responsible for their convictions, even in cases of police or prosecutorial misconduct). The goal of The Exonerated, besides simply making us aware of the crimes perpetrated by agents of the justice system in this country, is to make personal and allow us to feel these individuals’ stories, a goal it achieves with remarkable restraint and good taste.
photos by Carol Rosegg
Culture Project in New York City
scheduled to end on December 2, 2012
for tickets, call (212) 925-1806 or visit http://cultureproject.org/