Interviews with exonerated death row inmates form the basis for Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s The Exonerated, which opened Oct. 30 at The Culture Project at 45 Bleecker. The Exonerated will run twice more, on successive Mondays, Nov. 6 and 13 at The Culture Project. Plans exist for the play to be fully developed and relaunched in the Spring of 2001 by producer Allen Buchman, the playwrights said.
The performances benefit The Center for Wrongful Convictions, The Innocence Project, The Centurion Ministries and the 11 exonerated individuals who provided source materials to the playwrights. The play uses simple staging with the actors reading inter-connected monologues based on interviews with the former death row inmates.
The Oct. 30 bow featured one-off celebrity performances by Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Edie Falco, Sarah Jones and David Morse.
On Nov. 6, Richard Dreyfuss, Steve Buscemi, Vincent D’Onofrio, Hazelle Goodman and Ruben Santiago-Hudson will perform in the Exonerated cast.
On Nov. 13, Martha Plimpton, Cherry Jones, Ben Vereen and Paul Butler are scheduled to perform. On Oct. 30, Morse told Playbill On-Line that his reasons for being involved with the project had to do with the question of “fundamental ethics—right and wrong.”
Asked if he thought twice about getting involved with a controversial project that dealt with such intensely personal issues and high stakes, Morse said, “It (capital punishment, wrongful convictions) may not be personal enough for too many people. I think it’s something we just accept as a society. It’s part of what goes on here, it’s almost part of our routine. You “hear” about people executed in Texas, which I think is too bad. I don’t think we think enough about what we’re doing and we let other people take care of what is [really] a tragedy, for all of us. Especially when you consider what has happened to these people and as they say, the 87 others who have been found innocent. ”
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 87 innocent people have been exonerated and freed from death row.
“It’s the first time I’ve been asked to take part in something as public as this,” Morse said, “and I was very glad to be asked to do it. I’ve done a couple of films recently and people asked me about them because in “The Green Mile” there are executions, and in “Answer in the Dark” there’s an execution as well. They asked me if I considered not taking those projects because of that. Those projects are things you just do because they’re good projects and they’re good stories, and I didn’t even think about being involved with the death penalty. It almost seemed inappropriate to talk about it [while I was] with those projects because it’s not really a place to be expressing your views—you’re telling a story there. This [theatre] is a place where you get to express a little bit more, where you can express things that are more personal.”
Playwright Jessica Blank told Playbill On-Line that she had no personal connection to the system or the death penalty, but on an individual level she felt a deep and personal sense of responsibility. “As a human being and as an American,” Blank said, “I feel it’s my civic duty to deal with this issue because what is happening [now] in this country are the same human rights violations that we condemn other countries for. This is my country, I live here, it’s my responsibility to deal with that.”
Blank’s co-author and fiancé Erik Jensen said that, “The best way that we can deal with this as theatre people is storytelling. In every culture, that’s an important way to learn about yourself. Our goal with the play is to make the idea of wrongful conviction and exoneration a three dimensional idea. Our hope is — and again these are just benefit performances—but our hope with the final play — which is going to open in the Spring, is to make people feel that if it could happen to anyone, it could happen to them.”
At 45 Bleecker, a half-dozen of the exonerated, former death row inmates who had shared a variety of experiences and feelings with playwrights Blank and Jensen described losing what had been their faith in the justice system and of having a new belief that it was the resources available to a defense that often made the difference between achieving justice or experiencing a miscarriage of it.
While some of the exonerated on hand for the Oct. 30 performance admitted having nightmares and of lying low to avoid drawing negative attention to themselves or their families, one man, Delbert Tibbs said that he favors speaking out and calling attention to the issue, whatever the cost. Described in production notes as a “brilliant, politically radical seminary dropout,” Tibbs told Playbill On-Line that he prefers taking the risk of speaking out against wrongful conviction and the death penalty because he has learned that doing otherwise (i.e, not taking risks) does not necessarily guarantee his safety.
For tickets call Ticketmaster at (212) 307-4100.
-- By Murdoch McBride