Spotlight on the Death Penalty

A new play sheds dramatic light on death row tragedies

| November-December 2003

After appearing in a recent performance of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s documentary drama The Exonerated, actor Ben Vereen signed poetry books in the lobby of New York City’s Bleecker Theater. Vereen hadn’t written the books himself. The author was the person he portrays in the play, Delbert Tibbs, who spent years on death row. When I bought my copy of Tibbs’ Songs Singing Songs, I asked Vereen why he took the role.

“The message is so important,” he stated emphatically.

Vereen is not the only famous actor who feels that way. Since The Exonerated began its New York run in October 2002, Tim Robbins, Robert Vaughn, Susan Sarandon, Connie Britton, Brian Dennehy, and Peter Gallagher have all appeared on the Bleecker Theater stage.

Over the past three decades, at least 111 individuals on death row in America have been found to be innocent. These men and women weren’t freed on legal technicalities or because of lost evidence. They were freed because they didn’t commit the crimes that landed them there. Yet somehow, they were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to die, and some came awfully close to execution. Some lost more than 20 years of their lives.

This fall, people across the country will finally be able to see The Exonerated for themselves when the play begins a multicity U.S. tour. Stops include Orlando, New Orleans, Seattle, and even Fort Worth, in the heart of the most efficient state-sponsored killing zone of all, Texas.

The Exonerated is a simple play consisting of six independent stories told in documentary style. Five men. One woman. All were on death row in the United States at one time. Their own words make up the play’s script.