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Spotlight on the death penalty.

After a recent performance of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's documentary drama, The Exonerated, actor-entertainer Ben Vereen, who appears in the play, signed poetry books in the lobby of the Bleeker Theater in New York City. The poetry books were not Vereen's. He was autographing the writings of the individual he portrays in the play, Delbert Tibbs, who spent eight years on death row. When I purchased my copy of Tibbs's Songs Singing Songs, I asked Vereen why he decided to participate in the play.

"The message is so important," Vereen stated emphatically.

Along with Vereen, other well-known actors and actresses have appeared in The Exonerated. Among the players who have graced the stage since it began its run in New York in October are Tim Robbins, Robert Vaughn, Susan Sarandon, Connie Britton, Brian Dennehy, and Peter Gallagher.

Over the past three decades, 102 individuals have been exonerated from death row in America. These are individuals who were not freed on legal technicalities or because evidence was lost. These men and women did not commit their crimes. Yet somehow, they were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to die, and some came awfully close to execution. Some lost more than ten or twenty years of their lives.

This fall, more people will finally be able to experience The Exonerated. So far, with the exception of a few short runs in cities like Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., the play has made its powerful statement on life, death, and justice mostly in New York City. In October, it will begin a twenty-five-city tour of the United States. Orlando, New Orleans, Seattle, and the most efficient state-sponsored killing zone of all, Texas (Fort Worth), will get a chance to be challenged by the play's message.

The Exonerated is a simple piece of drama. It is six independent stories woven into one documentary tale. Five men. One woman. All were on death row in the United States of America at one time. Their own words make up the script of the play.

"Every word you hear comes from the people represented on stage," a voice announces at the beginning.

The stage is dark, and there are ten high black chairs that look like bar stools. Eight chairs are in line right next to each other. Then there are two other chairs on each end of the stage that sit higher than the other eight. Except for occasional sounds (music, gunshots, jail bars slamming), this is the show. Ten actors take the seats--some have dual parts--and the journey through life, death, justice, and then life again in America begins. There hasn't really ever been anything like The Exonerated in American theater mainly because of the subject matter and the approach taken by the writers.

Playwrights Blank and Jensen, now married, insist they are actors and not writers. But they do have a story that explains how two struggling New York actors tried their hand 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 begins. "'The Death Row 10' were a group of individuals in Illinois who had been tortured by members of the Chicago police and forced into confessing to crimes they did not commit. We were at the workshop on those cases, and one of the guys on death row calls by phone and he begins to tell his story."

She relates how in the middle of the individual's call the prison guards came and cut off the phone call. "It was a very emotional moment," she says. "The whole room was crying."

Inspired by the experience and wanting to bring the personal nature of it to others who were not normally concerned with such issues, the two began typing notes to each other on how to do it.

A few months later, Blank and Jensen went on the road to interview twenty individuals who had been exonerated. They were searching for the soul of that fateful day at the workshop at Columbia. By October 2000, on the eve of George Bush's controversial ascendancy to the Presidency, they had enough text written to do a series of readings of a version of the play at 45 Bleecker Theater in New York City. They pushed themselves through seventeen-hour days to enjoy three powerful nights of readings at the Bleecker. Yet they both sensed at the time that it was not enough, despite the positive feedback they received.

"We realized we had to tell the story more fully," Blank said. "We began to go into the court transcripts." Blank 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 said. With the assistance of defense attorneys for many of the exonerated 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 never-ending testimonials. It feels like something on PBS's Frontline, only there is no narrator. The stage lights pop on and shine upon an actor. That person begins to speak, and the knowledge that the words are part of a real interview with a living, breathing person engulfs you.

You forget that the actor is Ben Vereen; you are meeting Delbert Tibbs. Robert Vaughn isn't Robert Vaughn; he's Gary Gauger, sentenced to death in 1994 for killing his parents, exonerated in 1996. Connie Britton is Sunny Jacobs, sentenced to death in 1976, exonerated and released in 1992. In a matter-of-fact tone, Britton says, "In 1976, I was sentenced to death row." Then that story fades out and another story emerges, and you begin to wonder how the system could have broken down so many times.

But the answer is there, too: overzealous prosecutors, ruthless law enforcement officers, lying witnesses, the deliberate withholding of evidence, coerced confessions, public hysteria, and, most importantly, poor or nonexistent resources for proper criminal defense in a capital case.

Eventually The Exonerated comes to that joyous part where the individuals talk about how they finally won their freedom. It is a recitation of how America's modern, efficient system of capital punishment is slowly losing its credibility. Death penalty defense projects around the country are taking on questionable cases and finding all kinds of problems. DNA technology has freed more than a few individuals.

And then there is the rising tide of public concern that is catalyzing greater scrutiny of these cases and forcing lawmakers and political leaders to move cautiously before they allow someone to be put to death.

The Exonerated does what no newspaper op-ed piece I know of has ever been able to do: It gets people talking to each other rather than at each other about capital punishment. Blank and Jensen report that conservatives who have seen the play have come up to them afterwards and announced that they were pro-death penalty before walking in but now are rethinking their position.

Blank is thinking of the upcoming opening in Texas. She is acutely aware that this is the state where our current President, George W. 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."

Poet and public interest attorney Brian Gilmore is the author of two collections of poetry, including his latest, "Jungle nights and soda fountain rags: A poem for Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra."
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Title Annotation:drama about capital punishment
Author:Gilmore, Brian
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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