Irony abounds in The Exonerated, a dark, riveting collection of monologues delivered by six wrongly convicted Americans who rotted in various Death Rows before some stroke of luck, fortune or divine providence sprang them from their dungeons. But the real irony is that those who most need to witness the play–proponents of state-administered death–are the ones who would undoubtedly appreciate it the least.
The play, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, was originally produced in 2002 by the Actors Gang, a Los Angeles-based troupe that, at the time, included a couple of high-profile names seemingly synonymous with the anti-Death Penalty debate: actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. It has lost none of its bite over the past eight years.
The playwrights pored over transcripts and case files during their research on these six wrongly accused people and the result is a litany of mistakes, cover-ups and just plain fuck-ups made by cops, judges and attorneys on both sides of the aisle.
But what gives The Exonerated its keenly felt human dimension is that each of the falsely imprisoned, as well as their loved ones, was copiously interviewed. Each delivers a profound sense of individual loss and devastation that is too often overlooked in most Death Penalty debates.
Kerry: A young Texas man targeted for the murder of a sexually precocious woman in a motel. The only “evidence:” a fingerprint in the room left by Kerry long before the murder. Although plenty of evidence pointed to a local university professor conducting an affair with the woman, Kerry is framed due to his so-called homosexual perversion (he was actually a quite heterosexual male who unfortunately worked as a bartender in a gay bar). He would wind up spending 22 grueling years on Texas' death row before finally being freed by DNA Evidence.
Gary: A Midwestern farmer who wakes up to find his parents grisly murdered outside their home. He is convicted based on a confession he witlessly cops to based on intense police coercion and physical exhaustion. Only after a federal wiretap of a local motorcycle gang years later uncovers evidence that the murders were part of an initiation is he allowed to walk free.
Robert: An African-American horse groomer who made the unfortunate choice to date a white woman in a part of Florida where such fraternizing is frowned upon. He spent seven years on Death Row based on one piece of evidence: a strand of long hair in the dead woman's hands that didn't even match his hair color or length.
David: A shy teen-ager who wants to enter the ministry but who stupidly admits to being at the scene of a murder even though he was nowhere close. His hope is the overwhelming evidence he thinks will exonerate him. But it's never entered into court.
Sunny: A star-eyed hippie and mother of two convicted with her husband of shooting two police officers. She languishes on Death Row for 17 years, even though the real murderer had confessed to the killing some 16 years previously, a confession the authorities conveniently forgot about.[
Finally, there's Delbert, the roving narrator of the play, a proud African-American poet convicted of the rape and murder of a white woman in Florida even though he wasn't even in the state at the time of the crime.
The monologues recount who these people were before their convictions, the facts of their experiences, the desperate ways they tried to cope while in prison, and their often agonizing struggle to re-assimilate in society after their nightmares.
Three of the accused are white, and three are black, so race isn't the prevailing sentiment here. But class definitely is. Though all but one are gainfully employed, they're not exactly pulled from the ranks of the affluent, and they must rely on court-ordered attorneys for defense.
The other through-line is that each of their alleged crimes touches some kind of incendiary button: a son killing his parents; a black man sexually involved with a white woman; cop-killings.
Without the economic resources to hire lawyers who are as adept as raping the system as the cops and prosecutors, and accused of emotionally infused crimes in parts of the country where it's unlikely to find 12 jurors able to look past the horrific deeds, their convictions seem foregone.
Denis McCourt, who skillfully directs each actor in this Long Beach Shakespeare Company production, takes full advantage of the space, a former furniture store turned city art venue. And it's Vanessa Rose Parker as Sunny who pulls off the greatest feat, since she has the most complicated role.
Sunny has been fucked over by the system as much as anyone: 17 years on Death Row, a time in which she endures the execution of her husband, who was also convicted in the same crime. But Sunny is not bitter over her lost years, and not particularly interested in waging battles to correct the system that so reamed her. Her protest, she says, will be to not give in to the depression and bitterness that an observer would think she merits, but to live her life as fully and joyously as possible. That protest isn't just believable through Parker's nuanced, buoyant and eminently likable portrayal, but wholly admirable.
That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of anger in The Exonerated about the uneven and corrupt methods in which justice is administered in America. And it is in Billy Mayo's portrayal of the proud Delbert where that anger is most eloquently enunciated.
As he tells the audience in the final moments, people who criticize others for singling out what's wrong in America and not remembering what's right with America have their heads up their asses. When your car breaks down, do you want to know what's right with it? The same with the American legal justice system, Delbert says: we know what's right with it, but what's wrong with it is what needs fixing.
And what's wrong with justice, if you buy into The Exonerated, isn't just that innocent people are wrongly convicted and perhaps even killed; it's the prevailing elements in the culture that subscribe to the eye-for-an-eye system of justice, and who believe that only in killing another person can humanity best be protected when, it's entirely possible, it winds up dehumanizing every one us even further.
The Exonerated, the Expo Center, 4321 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, www.lbshakespeare.org. $10-20. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Thru March 6.