By C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #1078, November 13, 2000, posted at http://rwor.org

A plain stage set is flanked by long white banners stained with icons resembling rorschach tests. High up in a corner hangs a smaller white cloth, an electric chair painted on it, a spot of red bleeding out below.

The theater is packed, expectant. The lights dim and ten actors take their seats.

"I wish I could capture this for y'all." These are the words of Kerry, a man whose world was stolen from him by the state at the age of 17. He was framed for the murder of a woman in Tyler, Texas, and he spent the next 20 years in a living hell with a date to die.

It is October 30, New York City, the opening night of "The Exonerated," a play created from actual interviews with men and women who had been condemned to death, sent to prison, and later, in some cases decades later, found innocent and finally released. The play, still a work-in-progress, is the child of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, two young film and stage actors/writers in New York City.

In the playbill notes, Jessica and Erik describe how they came to write the play: "Last February, the two of us were at a conference at Columbia Law School. At that event, the leaders of a workshop on wrongful convictions broadcast a live collect call from an inmate in Illinois. He had been prosecuted on the basis of a false confession. His interrogators were later convicted of torturing him, but he remained in prison. Within minutes, tears were streaming down our faces--it was so clear, through the static and the bad connection, how much this innocent man wanted to be heard.

"Later that day, we were discussing how frustrating it is that stories like these are rarely known outside of activist communities. We may read news articles about wrongful convictions, but those are often cold and abstract. How could we relate the depth of our experience in that room to a wider community?"

They set about trying to locate the 87 (now 88) men and women from death row who have been found innocent and released. "After wading through piles of wrong numbers, attorneys' addresses, and 15-year-old court records," they eventually got in touch with 40 of these people. Over the summer they raised money to travel the country, visiting and interviewing them.

The script of this very powerful play is drawn verbatim from the stories told to them by ten of these exonerated people and their loved ones.

By the end of the evening, what has happened to these people on death row is seared in the minds and hearts of the audience in a way we will not soon forget. And through their stories comes a deep indictment of the whole social system and the criminal justice system that nearly took their lives.

It is testimony to the power of the play that we understand these very great injustices, by coming to know these characters, their unique personalities, their passions, and their humor. Remarkably, the play has many funny moments. It is not easy to create a work of art that does this well, and does it in a way that makes you know that each of us can take actions that will matter to the people of the world--and that there are many people out there relying on us to find this courage.

Meet Robert and Georgia, a Black couple from a small town in Mississippi (played by David Brown Jr. and Sarah Jones). They dig each other, they tell their stories in tandem, interrupting one another as lovers do, they are funny and strong together. Robert, a professional horse trainer, was convicted of raping and killing a white woman in 1991. The murdered woman was found clutching 16-inch long strands of red-blond hair in her hand. At the time Robert was convicted, it was known that another worker at the racetrack had been pursuing the victim sexually and had made racist comments about how she dated Black men. He had long red-blond hair.

Robert was released in 1997 after six years of fighting for his innocence from prison and finding people on the outside to fight with him. From the play we learn that he is still harassed by police in his home town, and the racing commission has refused to give him his license back, so he can't make a living working with horses. Georgia: "He can't do something he likes to do."

Brad Scott (played by J.K. Simmons) feels like someone I could have known from high school, a sweet regular guy raising a family in Florida. His baby was two weeks old when the state locked Brad up. He was accused of killing a child in a case that had gone unsolved for ten years. He tells us that the only reason he didn't have problems on Death Row was because he wasn't Black. From Brad, we learn something of the daily, hourly humiliation which is life on the row.

Brenda Massengill (played by Susan Sarandon) was one of the people in Arab, Alabama, who remained steadfast in her belief in the innocence of Randall Padgett (Tim Robbins), though she barely knew him when he was locked up in 1992 for killing his wife. Sitting next to each other, Brenda describes the scene of the brutal murder and staged rape. Randall tells us how his children had been with him that night, so they at least "never had any questions that their daddy hurt their mama." Brenda, a deeply religious woman, worked in a plant with Randall's brother. She and Randall came to love each other during the years they fought for his release.

Susan Sarandon also plays Sunny, one of the few women who has been on death row. She was an unlikely candidate for this grotesque punishment. Besides being innocent, she was as she put it "a hippie, one of those peace and love people, a vegetarian!" She was imprisoned from 1976 to 1992. A heavy silence hangs in the theater as she asks us to imagine our lives with that chunk of time removed. Her parents died in a plane crash during that time, her children grew up without a mother or father. Her husband, also falsely accused, is not portrayed on stage this evening. He was electrocuted by the state of Florida in a botched execution that became famous worldwide.

Astonishingly, the Sunny we meet is not defeated or bitter. Through Sarandon's straightforward and loving portrayal, we come to stand in the shoes of someone who decided she would not become the "husk of a human being" required by the prison system.


When the idea for this play came to Jessica and Erik, they had no theater, no actors, no producer, no money. But they had the idea, and it came to them at a time when, through the efforts of lawyers, journalists, activists and the prisoners themselves, the truth was emerging about the scores of wrongful convictions and the injustice of the death penalty in the United States. They went out on their quest, and they found the people who could bring this work of art to life.

The producer who introduced the play Monday night, Allan Buchman, is the founding executive director of The Culture Project, a not-for-profit organization which develops and produces new works. He promised Jessica and Erik the space at his beautiful new theater, 45 Bleecker, and he helped them find more people. As the summer ended and the voices of the exonerated became "The Exonerated," the script found its way to the actors and others in the theater world. The doors started opening. The play was refined and developed with a rehearsal cast of New York City actors, and in record time "The Exonerated" was brought to the stage.

The play is being performed on three Monday nights with three sets of actors--October 30, November 6 and 13. Proceeds from these benefit shows go to four organizations working to stop the death penalty, and to the exonerated people themselves. The Exonerated will be performed at the United Nations in December, and a longer run is planned for the spring. A film crew is at work on a documentary about the making of the play which will air on HBO.

I think the fact that the play is a theatrical work of undeniable power, not simply a documentary pageant, has helped fuel the enthusiasm of so many people in the arts. The actors who volunteered to perform in The Exonerated include many well-known artists: Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Charles Dutton, J.K. Simmons, Frankie Faison, Sarah Jones, Steven Buscemi, Vincent d'Onofrio, Richard Dreyfuss, Hazelle Goodman, Miriam Cyr, Paul Butler, David Morse, Harold Perrineau Jr., Martha Plimpton, Curtis McLarin, Darrell Larson, and Ruben Santiago Hudson. The director, Bob Balaban, is an accomplished film, theater and TV actor and director.

It is a real achievement to bring together these fine actors portraying characters who are so rarely heard on the stage, all the more remarkable since these are people this government actually tried to murder. The Exonerated is the kind of play that carves open more space for a powerful culture of resistance so much needed by the people in these days of harsh and mean-spirited politics.


Delbert Tibbs (played by Charles Dutton), appears early in the play, and returns periodically bringing a kind of wisdom and experience that really spoke to my heart. Delbert describes himself as child of the 60s and 70s. He had been in the military, then went to seminary for a year or two but dropped out because of the racism inside that institution--you could "cut it with a knife." He described the times back then: "If you had told me that the streets of America were not gonna run red with blood not too goddamn far in the future, I woulda told you you were stupid."

Delbert started roaming America, determined that he would not have his movements controlled by the racist order, and if trouble came he would deal with it. Trouble came. He was arrested for the rape and murder of a white woman in 1974 in Alabama. A national defense committee arose. Three years later Delbert was released--through the power of the people.

As the play ends, Larry Marshall comes to the stage. He is a Chicago lawyer who is known to many on death row as someone who has devoted his law practice to helping people fight for their lives in the prisons of the U.S. He calls up Robert and Georgia from the audience, then Randall and Brenda, Kerry and Sandra, Brad, Sunny, and finally Delbert. The theater rises as one with thunderous applause as these people you have come to know take their places with the actors.

For me, it is one of those transcendent moments. Before us are people who had the courage to stand strong and unbroken through unspeakable horrors. They have come forward to tell their stories to these artists who used the power of their art to return all this to us in the form of a beautiful play that will, without doubt, do its part to help us change this world.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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