“The Exonerated,” is a story about the effect that decades of incarceration has on a person who had their freedom and self-respect stripped away and then returned years later.
All over the world, justice systems have in many ways fallen short of being the last hope of the people – innocent people – a good number who have been given death sentences for crimes they didn’t commit, over the past few decades.
Few lucky ones have, by strokes of divine intervention, the grace of last-minute pardons, or after DNA evidence been exonerated, sometimes after serving 20-plus years in prison, but truth is multiples of these numbers have been given to the hang man undeservedly.
The Exonerated is an unsettling, hard-hitting documentary play which recounts the riveting stories of six former death row inmates (played by rising local actors) using their own words, from court transcripts, interviews and letters. Created by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the play was directed by the playwrights.
Though these five men and one woman were convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit, some were nowhere near the scenes of the crimes, while others were connected to the victims by the thinnest of threads. There were also those who claimed they were pressured to falsely admit guilt during grueling police interviews.
Between them, these folks spent over one hundred years on death row before the criminal justice system finally corrected its mistakes and exonerated them, a fact that should scare every ordinary citizen.
The setting of the play was devoid of props, save for six chairs lined up against a stark backdrop: the disturbing image of a vintage electric chair screened on a wall opposite the actors – who would alternately sit facing it or get up to tell mind-boggling tales – the play exposed shocking police and prosecutorial misconduct in each case, which led to the conviction of innocent people.
Issues of race, law enforcement and the death penalty were brought to the fore, but there were occasional moments of humor to lighten things up.
Featuring an exceptionally strong cast led by director DeMone Seraphin, “The Exonerated” seemed to possess an unmistakable power, one which pulled at your social justice heartstrings while shedding light on a series of serious miscarriages of justice.
If you’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film “The Wrong Man,” you can understand the devastating effect being wrongly accused of a crime you didn’t commit, can have on the accused and their families.
How do you keep the faith in the bleakest of situations when all seems lost? When freedom is stripped away along with your self-respect?
The wrongful imprisonment and promise of execution of the innocent is a cancer on our culture and our justice system that is very often steeped in racism, classism, and greed.
“I produced this play because it features incredible stories — well told — with incredible actors,” said Richard Mazda, Secret Theatre’s founder and artistic director. “I feel that this is a most relevant play because we still have a justice system that is skewed and distorted. In an era when police brutality has brought about new movements like Black Lives Matter in the US, this play shows us the dehumanizing process that can begin with a wrongful arrest and can lead to a horrendous miscarriage of justice.”
By lifting our voices, sharing our gifts, and telling these stories, we add to the demands the reformation of a fractured system and reparations to the countless lives and families that have been devastated by the practice the world over.