By ROY BERKO
The death penalty carries the inherent risk of executing an innocent person. Since 1973, more than 186 people who had been sentenced to death have been exonerated.
Research by the National Academy of Science indicates that about 4.1% of the people currently on death row are likely to be innocent.
The Exonerated, now in production at Beck Center for the Arts, is a docudrama based on over forty interviews of wrongfully convicted death row inmates across the United States by the script’s authors, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.
Colleen Longshaw Jackson, the show’s director, says of the work, “What drew me to this piece was the opportunity to showcase human resilience with an honest glimpse of the consequences and lasting effects trauma can have on a person.”
Jackson also states, “As some of us commit or recommit to social justice causes across the country we are challenged to ‘Say Their Names’ and ‘Never Forget’ until (there is) justice. The lives of the exonerated in this piece matter as well so we say their names and tell their stories, and my hope is that the audience will be inspired to act in some way to make our country a more just and equitable place to be. There are innocent people still suffering. Still waiting.”
The message of the script is powerful and meaningful. We hear of prejudice, police intimidation, the wrong-doer blaming the innocent, and arrest for convenience. The fact that we are hearing the words of real people who, for various reasons, were convicted, makes the concept even more powerful than a fictionalized tale.
Each of the tales of the convicted holds its own message of wrongful conviction. Each is a tale whose conclusions of the person being released from prison leads of feeling of wanting to cheer, to want to praise the organization, the lawyers, the lay people who helped open the prison door for the individual to return to society. Return, but in no way get the years of lost freedom returned. As the released persons indicate, they are not the same person they were before being incarcerated.
The literal telling of the individual tales, which is the strength of the piece, is the also play’s weakness. Listening to people telling what happened to them is interesting, but doesn’t make for gripping theater. There is little action, no visual texturing of experiences, just lots of words…undeniable words, but just words. Ninety-minutes of this can make for a long sit.
That’s not to say that the many awards given to the piece are not deserved. It can be conceived that such organizations as the NAACP, Amnesty International, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers gave their praise and recognition because of the subject matter, not for the compelling staging.
The cast, Stuart Hoffman, Amy Fritsche, Greg White, Isaiah Betts, Keith Kornajcik, John Polk, Samantha Cocco, Andrea Belser, Mell-Vonti Bowens and Abraham McNeil Adams, many of whom play several parts, are all strong. A special nod to Amy Fritsche whose textured portrayal of Sunny, who while in jail missed out on watching her children grow-up and the death of her husband, was compelling.
One can only wonder if the director could have gone beyond the words of the script and created some action, whether physical, vocal or visual, that could have added some element of altering speech after speech after speech.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT:The Exonerated has a strong and important message. It is one that anyone interested in civil justice should hear. The docudrama methodology of one speech following another relayed the idea, but didn’t make for compelling theater.
The Exonerated runs at Beck Center for the Arts from October 8-November 7, 2021. For tickets, call216-521-2540X10 or click beckcenter.org.
(Roy Berko is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Cleveland Critics Association.)