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Free at Last

Jeremy O’Kasick

Playwrights Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank with Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
At center stage, underneath a solitary spotlight, a middle-aged black man tells of how he ended up on Death Row, wrongfully convicted for raping a white teenage girl and murdering her lover.

Watching in the off-Broadway audience at the 45 Bleecker Street Theater sits Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the former prizefighter who was also imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. Carter, who now runs a Toronto-based lobbying and resource group for the wrongly convicted, had requested to view The Exonerated after he had heard of its raw veracity and growing impact on the national debate over the death penalty.

Culled from 40 extended interviews with actual individuals exonerated from Death Row, The Exonerated spotlights six alternating narratives through dramatic readings on a set that amounts to little more than a line of chairs and script stands. With swift tempo, the spotlight jumps between the exonerated as they re-enact court scenes and interrogations and describe how, through racial injustice, coerced confessions, incompetent defense, and mishandled evidence, they came to live next to death’s door.

It’s bare bones theater at its best, empowered by often deeply disturbing yet transformative stories of people who had to piece together their fractured, broken lives.

“The state of Texas executed me about a thousand times,” says one of the exonerated, who was repeatedly raped and brutally abused on Death Row. “And they just keep on doin’ it.”

At its core, The Exonerated explores how individuals survive through such severe persecution and injustice. All of the main characters undergo some degree of spiritual transformation, with the play’s central reflective voice spoken through Delbert Tibbs (portrayed most recently by Bill Marshall and Ben Vereen), an elder radical African-American and one time seminary student.

“We were really careful not to frame Delbert as another wise old black guy without true humanity,” says Erik Jensen, who co-wrote The Exonerated with his wife, Jessica Blank. “The holy black men in Hollywood movies can be as racist as Gone with the Wind.”

Since the play was first produced in Los Angeles in 2000, it has been championed not only by New York theater critics but also civil rights groups such as the NAACP. Between its extended runs in Los Angeles and New York, a slew of Hollywood stalwarts have joined the rotating cast, from Richard Dreyfuss and Mia Farrow to Gabriel Byrne and Danny Glover. The Exonerated has also been staged for the United Nations and select Washington audiences, and will begin a 14-city tour this fall, reaching such pro-death penalty bastions as Austin, Texas, and Orlando, Florida.

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Primarily actors, Jensen and Blank first conceived of the project after a conference hosted by Columbia University in 2000, where they heard an Illinois Death Row inmate tell his harrowing story via telephone. They were so moved that they decided to spend that summer navigating the interstate freeway system, conducting interviews and collecting court transcripts from the back roads of Mississippi to downtown Chicago. Every word in The Exonerated’s script derives from these sources.

Once they edited the heaps of material down to six exonerated characters, Jensen brought the finished script to one of his former stage directors, Bob Balaban. Perhaps known best for his uptight acting roles in Christopher Guest’s mockumentary films like Best in Show, Balaban embraced the project immediately, agreeing to direct it and circulating it among some of his more famous Hollywood friends. Soon enough Tim Robbins, Susan Saradon, Steve Buscemi, Alec Baldwin and others agreed to play a part in the project.

Discussing the play at a Greenwich Village bistro, the actor-playwrights are quick to point out that their production has drawn both liberal and conservative actors, transcending political divisions to speak to a common humanity. And while certainly engaged in progressive issues, Jensen and Blank wanted the words of the exonerated to speak for themselves, rather than to inject their own viewpoints into the prisoners’ narratives.

“The one thing I can share with Republicans is that I don’t like being told what to do,” says Jensen, whose emphatic tone is often complimented with hand gestures and head shakes. “So why would I break my rule and tell somebody what to think? [The Exonerated] is about engaging in a dialogue.”

Blank adds, “And yet, we get a lot of people who walk into the play who are die-hard pro-death penalty and they walk out saying that they have to rethink all of it because they didn’t know that these things happened.”

“Anyway, on either side of the issue, nobody wants to put innocent people to death,” Jensen says.

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Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, couldn’t agree more. In December 2002, the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University facilitated a special production of The Exonerated, which was attended by Ryan, numerous Illinois state representatives, and 36 people who were nearly put to death because of wrongful convictions. Ryan had been considering commuting the sentences of everyone on Death Row before his term in office ran out.

“It was intense and it was clear at the end of the evening that Gov. Ryan hadn’t really made up his mind,” recalls Blank. “He was poker-faced, but he stayed and talked to everyone for a very long time.”

Weeks later, Ryan commuted all 167 of Illinois’ death sentences to life terms and pardoned four Death Row inmates before he left office. While the playwrights do not claim that they directly influenced the former governor’s decision, it was clearly rooted in a desire to protect more people from being wrongfully executed.

Since capital punishment was constitutionally reinstated in 1976, 855 people have been put to death and currently there are 3,704 more prisoners awaiting execution. While 111 Death Row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, there is no precise means of determining how many of the executed were innocent.

As awareness of massive failure in the legal system continues to spread, opinion poll numbers supporting capital punishment have dipped nationally in recent years, and calls for further moratoriums have gained strength, most recently in North Carolina. Since 9/11, however, the Bush administration has hastened efforts to counteract anti-death penalty movements.

Attorney General John Ashcroft persists in commanding federal prosecutors to more aggressively seek the death penalty, and, preceded by the Clinton-backed 1996 Effective Death Penalty Act, anti-terrorism efforts in the current administration also include a proposed bill that would expand convictions punishable by death to nonviolent crimes.

“We’ve had two tickets on roll call for President Bush and a guest since The Exonerated first opened,” says Jensen. “He is still welcome to come and see the show.”

Jeremy O’Kasick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who recently lived in Dar es Salaam as a Fulbright Scholar.
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