A few weeks ago, I heard an unforgettable talk by Anthony Ray Hinton, who has the dubious honour of being the 152nd person to be exonerated from America’s death row since 1976 (incidentally, since he was released last year the number’s increased to 156). Despite spending nearly 30 years locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, and never receiving any kind of apology, what struck me most about Ray was his astonishing lack of bitterness or hatred towards the people who’d put him there.
At that same conference, an announcement was made about the upcoming production at Questors Theatre of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated. First performed in 2002, the play documents the stories – in their own words – of six exonerated death row prisoners: Delbert Tibbs (Zac Sargusingh), David Keaton (Wayil Eisa), Gary Gauger (Mike Hadjipateras), Kerry Max Cook (Mark Redrup), Sunny Jacobs (Wendy Megeney) and Robert Earl Hayes (Jason Welch).
Although these stories vary in their details, there are several common themes: forced confessions; racism; unreliable witnesses; incompetent lawyers. Most of the speakers were only tangentially connected to the victim; just one was even there when the crime was committed. And yet all six found themselves facing the ultimate penalty for something they didn’t do, while a society looked on and called it justice.
Blank and Jensen travelled the country to collect interviews with the six exonerees, and it’s excerpts from these interviews along with court transcripts that make up the play’s script. As the spotlight falls on each of them, the five men and one woman take turns revealing their stories through a mix of monologue and dialogue, while the four actors of the male and female ensemble – who fill in all the remaining parts, including lawyers, cops, judges and spouses – silently patrol the edges of the set. This simple but highly effective touch from director Peter Gould brings home the idea that while they may now be free, the six will always, to a certain degree, be in prison.
Following in the footsteps of big Hollywood names including Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon, the Questors cast prove more than equal to the challenge of bringing real people to life on stage – their goal not to imitate their subjects, but to capture the spirit that helped each of them survive an ordeal most of us can only imagine. There’s Delbert, the softly spoken poet; Sunny, whose sense of humour and creativity kept her going through the worst kind of horror; David, the confused teenager who had to fight to retain his faith in God… And despite everything, each of the actors ultimately radiates that same sense of peace and forgiveness we heard from Ray Hinton – not for the sake of those who got it wrong, but for the sanity of those who suffered the consequences.
Needless to say, The Exonerated is not a particularly easy show to watch. There are details that make us audibly gasp in shock, or shake our heads in disbelief that such a thing could possibly be allowed to happen once, let alone six (or 156) times. The anger so noticeably absent from the men and women on stage is not as easily subdued in their audience; whatever your opinion regarding the death penalty in principle, surely a justice system so flawed it can send innocent people to the execution chamber must be stopped.
The Exonerated is a heartfelt production of a hugely powerful piece of theatre. The writers’ goal was to reveal the human stories behind the statistics, but in doing so the play also exposes the failings of a system that it’s difficult to believe still exists in the 21st century. It shocks, educates and enrages – and I urge you to see it if you can.
The Exonerated is at Questors Theatre until 5th November.
* The conference where I heard Anthony Ray Hinton speak was organised by LifeLines, a UK-based organisation who support death row prisoners through letter writing.