This review of The Exonerated at The Secret Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 8 (2018) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen
Executive Producer: Richard Mazda
Director: DeMone Seraphin
Assistant Director: Krysta Hibbard
Fight Director/Dramaturg: Meron Langsner
Associate Fight Director/Dramaturg: Cristina Ramos
Stage Manager/Sound Design: Jessica Fornear
Production Manager: Justin Hsu
Lighting Design: Joe Cabrera
Scenic Design: Melissa Anderson
Projections Design: Alexis Achilles
Movement Coordinator: Tamrin Goldberg
The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, New York 11101
The Exonerated opened Off-Broadway on October 10, 2002 at 45 Bleecker Theatre and ran there through March 7, 2004. It was written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen based on interviews they conducted with 40 former death row inmates who had been freed by the state after having served as much as 22 years in prison. The original production, which ran for 608 performances, won the 2003 Lucille Lortel Award for Unique Theatrical Experience, the 2003 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience, and the 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play. It has also won the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' Champion of Justice Award and Court TV's Scales of Justice Award. The work combines first-person narrative and dramatic recreations to tell the stories of six wrongfully convicted inmates and the impact that had on their lives and the people who loved them. Those featured include Delbert Tibbs (James S. Washington), Kerry Max Cook (Tommy Norton), Gary Gauger (Mark A. Keeton), David Keaton (Greg K. Warren), Robert Earl Hayes (Alphonso Walker, Jr.), and Sunny Jacobs (Laura Lockwood). Also in the cast are Chelsea Davis, Ruby Littman, Tyler Waage, and Sean Jarrell.
This is an emotionally riveting play with an extraordinarily talented cast. In turn, we hear the stories of six wrongfully convicted individuals. One gave a coerced confession while another provided a "vision statement" that was used as a confession. There is a woman who was in a car with a man who shot two police officers and a young man, who worked as a bartender in a gay bar, who was railroaded with little evidence and charged with murdering a young woman he once slept with. There is no doubt that a lack of knowledge regarding one's rights combined with aggressive police tactics have led to false confessions. It is also true that circumstantial evidence has led to the wrongful conviction of many innocent people. The tragedy of a wrongly convicted individual is something every person of good faith wishes could be avoided. However, as long as juries continue to convict people based on eyewitness testimony and circumstantial evidence, mistakes will happen. There is a delicate balance between trying to avoid incarcerating innocent people and allowing guilty individuals to walk free. It is also true, as related in this play, that the cost of being wrongfully convicted is extremely high, not only for the inmate but also for those who love the man or woman incarcerated. This play shows how a wrongful conviction can not only destroy the life of the person convicted but also of that person's family and friends.
The play is very dramatic and moving. We are warned that if something like a wrongful conviction can happen to some of the characters in this play, it can happen to you as well. The reality of being in prison is also explicitly shown. For example, three men "pulled a train" on a young man in prison and the rape scene was vividly depicted. That straight man, who was widely thought to be gay, once aspired to be "all that plus a bag of potato chips." He is now horribly humbled and will never be able to reclaim his innocence. The Exonerated has a substantive book that follows the characters from the time of their arrest, through their conviction and time in prison, to their exoneration and adjustment to life after their release. I discovered only two errors in the book. One was when a Judge was ruling on an Objection and on an Application made by defense counsel. Objections are "sustained" or "overruled." Applications are "granted" or "denied." This play has universal appeal, no matter what one's political ideology may be. For that reason, I thought it unnecessary to have a character, who played an attorney say, "I was conservative and also very stupid." Perhaps it would've been better for her to say, "I was naive and also very stupid" because any intelligent conservative would be aware of the injustices that currently exist in our criminal justice system. The problem that remains is how we can reform it to make it more just for all who are caught up in it and the answer can't just be to let criminals walk free or to not arrest them in the first place. That only results in worse consequences down the line.
James S. Washington was brilliant as the poet Delbert Tibbs. He really held this production together and his poetry moved me. An example was the line, "It's not easy to be a poet here, yet I sing." The ever optimistic Sunny Jacobs, refusing to be a victim, stated, "If you rub two sticks together and keep crying on them, you are never going to make a spark." The Exonerated runs through June 9, 2018. Tickets cost $18.00 ($15.00 for students) in advance and can be purchased at www.SecretTheatre.com or by calling 718-392-0722. Tickets are $20.00 each if purchased at the door. I highly recommend you see this play!