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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

The exonerated

Death is the one punishment that can never be undone. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like to be arrested for a crime you did not commit, given a death sentence, and found innocent fifteen years later. Then imagine your husband had already been executed. It happened to Sunny Jacobs. The Exonerated, a new play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, takes a seething look at such true cases of wrongfully convicted death row inmates, making a strong case against capital punishment.

Told through graphic monologues, forceful interchanges between the accused and the accusees, and quieter moments of grace, the strongest aspect of the play lies in the truth that every word spoken on stage was, at some point, spoken or written by the man or woman who's story is being shared. In total there are six exonerated characters but as the cast, including the likes of Marlo Thomas (as Sunny Jacobs) and Brian Dennehy (as Gary Gauger), would gradually share, the web of family and friends also affected by their loved ones' death sentences far exceeded that number.

"If you are accused of a sex crime in the South you probably should have done it. Cause you will be found guilty," remarked Delbert Tibbs (William Jay Marshall) at one point during the production, attempting to make a light of his situation. In the audience, people laughed, nervously.

At times, the moments of humor were even harder to bear than the moments of torment shared by the different characters. Amidst the stories of six innocent people, there was a fair amount of second hand guilt, or at the very least luck. At one point, Ms. Jacobs asks the audience to "reflect, from 1976 to 1992. Now just remove that entire chunk from your life." She has.

In political pieces, it is easy to wander into the area of manipulative speeches and exaggerative outburst. The Exonerated refuses to be dismissed that easily. Its manner is bare-bones and biting; it startles from its own sheer strength.

Yet amidst tales of involuntary scars tattooed by crude fellow inmates and the ghosts of lost loved ones, there is little bitterness amidst the play. For while there is certainly a large amount of indirect blame in terms of the United States government and its current legal system, the play is more of a call to action than a condolence of past events.

The characters share a stoney tenacity about their lives that those in all stations of life could stand to benefit from _ to live as fully as possible, no matter the circumstances. Instead of visiting her husband Jesse's gravesite, like his mother requests of her, Sunny instead chooses to see herself a "living monument" to his life. Her voice could not sound more beautiful, more inspired or joyous.

In the past few months, The Exonerated, with its rotating cast of ten, has been making its tour of the country, starting in New York, traveling to Illinois (which is currently in the midst of one of the biggest capital punishment debacles to date, amounting in four exonerated peoples already) and Washington D.C.. Many a theatrical and Hollywood star, including Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and Tim Robbins have agreed to lend their time and talent for essentially minimum wage. These actors are donating their time in order to fight for a cause, not a Tony. It's quite honorable _ as is the attention to detail, careful melding of facts and dialogue, and general respect for both the audience and people represented on stage.

The only remaining question in terms of the success of The Exonerated is whether or not it succeeds as a play, in the traditional sense of the word. With no set, no costumes, no lighting design to speak of, it is difficult to critique it as such. Perhaps it doesn't need to be. As a theatrical and political hybrid, it arrests the heart and begs clemency of the soul. That type of artistic creature is far more rare.