Spotlight on the Death Penalty

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.

“Every word you hear comes from the people represented on stage,” a voice announces, and the play begins. Ten high black chairs that look like bar stools are sitting on a dark stage. Eight of them sit in a line flanked by two other chairs elevated on each end of the stage. Ten actors take the seats–some have dual parts–and recount their journeys through life, death, justice, and then back into the world as free Americans. Except for occasional sounds (music, gunshots, jail bars slamming), this is the show. But that hardly suggests the emotional experience that awaits many in the audience.

Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, now married, insist they are actors and not writers. But these two New Yorkers have managed to succeed at the literary genre often described as the most difficult to master.

“We were at a conference at Columbia University in the spring of 2000 in a workshop about the Death Row 10,” Blank says, referring to a group of people in Illinois who had been tortured by Chicago police into confessing to crimes they hadn’t committed. “We were at the workshop on those cases, and one of the guys on death row calls by phone and begins to tell his story.”

In the middle of the call, the prison guards cut the caller off. “It was a very emotional moment,” she says. “The whole room was crying.”

Inspired to share this wrenching experience with those who might not normally care about such issues, Blank and Jensen began corresponding with former death row prisoners. A few months later, they went on the road to interview 20 former death row inmates who had been exonerated. By October 2000, they had written enough text to try out an early version of the play. They pushed themselves through 17-hour days to offer a series of readings over three nights in New York, but despite a lot of positive feedback, they knew they still had more work to do.

“We realized we had to tell the story more fully,” Blank says. Which meant researching the actual trials. She estimates that they read 250,000 pages of court transcripts all over the country. “Every place we visited, everyone thought we were law students,” she says. With help from various defense attorneys and others connected to the cases, they eventually spliced together a free-flowing, highly emotional saga detailing the destruction of six ordinary lives.

Aesthetically, the key to The Exonerated is the relentless first-person testimony. Except for the lack of a narrator, the feel of it is like something you’d see on PBS’s Frontline documentary series. The stage lights shine upon an actor, who begins to speak, and the knowledge that the words are taken from an interview with a living, breathing person engulfs you.

Given the play’s compelling nature, you’re apt to quickly forget that the actor is Ben Vereen; you are meeting Delbert Tibbs. Robert Vaughn is Gary Gauger, sentenced to death in 1994 for killing his parents, then exonerated in 1996. Connie Britton is Sunny Jacobs, sentenced to death in 1976, exonerated and released in 1992. As each person’s story fades, another resumes, until you’re left wondering how the justice system could have broken down so many times.

And the answer is there on the stage as well: overzealous prosecutors, ruthless law enforcement officers, lying witnesses, the deliberate withholding of evidence, coerced confessions, and public hysteria. But in one case after another, the most important source of injustice reveals itself to be the lack of resources needed to provide a proper defense for these hapless people accused of capital crimes.

Eventually, The Exonerated reaches that joyous part where the people portrayed explain how they finally won their freedom. The play stands as a symbol of how America’s system of capital punishment is slowly losing its credibility. Death-penalty defense projects around the country are taking on new cases and finding all kinds of problems. DNA technology has freed a number of wrongly imprisoned people. Meanwhile, rising public concern is leading to greater scrutiny, forcing lawmakers and political leaders to move cautiously before they allow someone to be put to death.

The Exonerated accomplishes what a newspaper op-ed piece rarely if ever does: It gets people talking to each other about capital punishment. Blank and Jensen report that death-penalty supporters who have seen the play have come up to them afterwards to say they are rethinking their position.

Blank has given some thought to the play’s upcoming performance in Texas. She is acutely aware that this is the state where President Bush presided over 152 executions when he was governor.

“It will be interesting to see,” she says, “what will happen when the play goes to Fort Worth.”

Brian Gilmore is the author of two poetry collections, including his latest, Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags: A Poem for Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra (Karibou Books). Gilmore is currently a managing attorney at the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C. He resides in Maryland with his wife and two daughters. Reprinted from The Progressive (Aug. 2003), a magazine dedicated to leftist political and cultural coverage, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Subscriptions: $32/yr. (12 issues) from Box 421, Mount Morris, IL 61054.

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