Stage Play written by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank
Featuring a rotating cast
Reviewed by Hans Sherrer
Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 24, page 17
The Exonerated is a 90 minute stage play revolving around the stories of six former Death Row prisoners who were released from prison after their convictions were reversed. The play briefly tells in narrative fashion each person’s story of what she or he was falsely accused of, how she or he was wrongly convicted, and his or her eventual exoneration.
The play is staged with a spartan set of 10 chairs lined up across the stage. There is a lectern in front of each chair that has a copy of the script. There is no physical movement since the actors remain seated throughout the play. The acting is in the voice inflections and accents of the performers as they recite dialogue based on court transcripts and interviews related to the cases of the five men and one women:
· Kerry Max Cook, convicted in 1978 of murdering a woman acquaintance. He was wrongly imprisoned in Texas for 22 years.
· Robert Earl Hayes, convicted in 1991 of murdering and raping a co-worker. He was wrongly imprisoned in Florida for six years.
· Delbert Tibbs, convicted in 1974 of murdering a man and raping his companion. He was wrongly imprisoned in Florida for three years.
· Sonia Jacobs, convicted in 1976 of murdering two policemen. She was wrongly imprisoned in Florida for 16 years.
· Gary Gauger, convicted in 1993 of murdering his mother and father. He was wrongly imprisoned in Illinois for three years.
· David Keaton, convicted in 1971 of murder. He was wrongly imprisoned in Florida for two years.
Four other actors, two men and two women, wear multiple hats by reciting dialogue of judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers in the cases, as well as several other people.
The Exonerated is touring the country as of the spring of 2004. The Moore Theater in Seattle was nearly sold out when I saw the play in January 2004. Pulling in a large audience willing to pay over $50 a ticket requires marquee performers, and during the plays six day run in Seattle, veteran actors Brian Dennehy and Lynn Redgrave played Gary Gauger and Sonia Jacobs, respectively. An assortment of “name” performers, including Richard Dreyfus, Amanda Plummer, Gabriel Bryne, Marlo Thomas, and Vincent D’Onofrio have played parts in the play in different cities.
I was somewhat disappointed with The Exonerated. Perhaps reflecting that its writers are of the MTV generation – it has the feel of watching a music video as it jumps from one person to another every few minutes (or less). I suppose that is great if you have the attention span of a two year-old, but I thought it was distracting. So much so that I found myself thinking of ways the play could have been designed to be more dramatic and less “hip.” I was also taken aback by the way the play is staged “on the cheap.” Go to any high school play in the country and you are likely to see significantly higher production values than are incorporated into The Exonerated.
The Exonerated does however, provide a reason for the snob faction of its audience to indignantly exclaim after a night at the theater - “Oh my, isn’t what happened to those people just terrible!” – and the next day go on with their life as if the night before they had been bothered by a bout of indigestion.
Based on the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, The Exonerated has been good for helping to put a spotlight on several serious miscarriages of justice. However it owes that press coverage to the “name-brand” actors in the cast and not its subject matter or production values. How is that known? The release of an innocent person from prison rarely merits more than a paragraph in newspapers outside of the city or town affected. However to have Brian Dennehy portray Gary Gauger, who was released from prison eight years ago, and Lynn Redgrave portray Sonia Jacobs, who was released 12 years ago, merited almost 1-1/2 pages of coverage in The Seattle Times (Jan. 11, 2004, pgs K1, K4; and, Jan. 15, 2004, C3). That could be more coverage than the paper devoted in total to reports about the 76 people exonerated or pardoned in the U.S. in 2003 (See, The Innocents Database at, http://forejustice.org/search_idb.htm).
In spite of its deficiencies, The Exonerated is worth seeing at least once by anyone with a smidgen of social consciousness, but not at the $52 dollars I paid for a ticket in the balcony. In a few years community, high school, and college theater groups, typically charging $5-$15 dollars a ticket for a seat that is often times only yards from the performers, will begin staging The Exonerated. The actors in those productions will be just as effective as the “name” performers in the off-Broadway touring version – and probably more so because they will better project to the audience that will be closer to the stage.
Waiting for a local production of The Exonerated is a viable option for two reasons: there is nothing about the play that makes it a must see right now (unless you want to see a big name performer read a script); and you can take your savings (up to $80 for two people) and have your own Wrongful Conviction Movie Fest – including popcorn and drink refreshments! There are over 70 movies related to wrongful convictions that you can choose from listed in The Innocents Bibliography at: http://forejustice.org/biblio/bibliography.htm. Many of those movies are based on actual cases, and can typically be rented at video locations where they are available for $3 or less, or for free from your local library. Any one of those movies could provide as much or more information than The Exonerated about the process by which an innocent person is wrongly convicted, what the person goes through, and how they are eventually exonerated. It is also worth keeping in mind that each of these dramatically powerful and informative movies starring “name” performers has been seen by many times more people than will see a theater performance of The Exonerated in a hundred years.
The following are brief summaries of nine movies related to wrongful convictions you might want to consider seeing, if you haven’t already.
· In the Blink of an Eye tells the tragic story of Sonia Jacobs and Jesse Tafero who were wrongly convicted of the 1976 murder of two policemen and sentenced to death. The 1996 movie stars Mimi Rogers as Sonia Jacobs, and effectively portrays the heroic efforts of her childhood friend, Micki Dickoff, a documentary film maker, who believed in her innocence and worked for years towards her exoneration.
· Call Northside 777 tells the compelling story of Joseph Majczek, who was convicted of murdering a Chicago policeman in 1933 and sentenced to life in prison. The 1948 movie stars Jimmy Stewart as the enterprising reporter who beat the bushes for proof of Majczek’s innocence after responding to a classified ad by Majczek's mother seeking help. His mother had worked for years scrubbing floors to save $5,000 (a significant amount in the 1940s) to offer as a reward for information that would exonerate her son.
· The Hurricane tells the moving story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and his co-defendant, John Artis, who were wrongly convicted twice of murdering three people. The 1999 movie stars Denzel Washington (nominated for the Oscar’s Best Actor award) and shows how important the efforts of three Canadians, including a teenager, were to the eventual exoneration of the two men.
· Dangerous Evidence: The Lori Jackson Story, tells the inspiring story of activist lawyer Lori Jackson’s efforts to aid a US Marine Corp Battalion's only African American corporal who she believed was wrongly convicted of raping a white officer's wife. The 1999 movie stars Lynn Whitfield.
· The Thin Blue Lie tells of the doggedly determined effort of Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jonathan Neumann to investigate corruption in the Philadelphia Police Department. As he discovered, their untoward actions included framing innocent people, one of whom was on death row for causing five arson related deaths. Neumann won a Pulitzer Prize for the reporting this movie is based on. The 2000 movie stars Rob Morrow, Randy Quaid and Paul Sorvino. See the review of The Thin Blue Lie in Justice:Denied Issue 23.
· In The Name of the Father tells the story of four Irishmen known as the Guildford Four, who were framed by the police for an IRA bombing that killed five people in a Guildford, England pub. The 1994 movie stars Daniel Day Lewis as Gerry Conlon, and Emma Thompson as Gareth Peirce, the lawyer who relentlessly searched for years to finding exonerating evidence. See the review of the movie in Justice Denied, Vol. 2, No. 4, that can be viewed at, http://www.justicedenied.org/inthenameofthefather.htm.
· A Cry in the Dark tells the double tragedy that befell the Chamberlain family in Australia. Lindy Chamberlain was wrongly convicted of murdering her young daughter, who was actually dragged away by a dingo during a camping trip. The 1988 movie stars Meryl Streep and Sam Neill.
· Ten Rillington Place tells the too impossible not to be true story of Timothy Evans. In 1949 Evans was charged with the gruesome slaying of his wife and baby after being induced by police to falsely confess to the murders. Evans was convicted, and then hanged in March 1950. However after his execution it was discovered the actual killer had continued his murder spree. Timothy Evan’s execution influenced many people in the U.K. to recognize a fatal flaw with capital punishment is the inability to correct an innocent person’s execution. The 1970 movie stars Richard Attenborough.
· The Wrong Man tells of the devastating effect on nightclub musician “Manny” Balestro and his wife when he was wrongly accused of robbing an insurance office in 1954. Alfred Hitchcock directed this movie that is based on an account published in Life magazine. The 1956 movie stars Henry Fonda, Vera Miles and Anthony Quayle.
After watching a half-dozen movies about wrongful convictions you should have money left over from what tickets to the touring version of The Exonerated would have cost. To come out even with the cost of the play’s tickets, you could do the good deed of donating the leftover money to one or more of the cash strapped grassroots organizations concerned with various aspects of wrongful convictions. Then you can check out The Exonerated if it is locally produced in your community.