THE EXONERATED by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen is not like other plays. The actors represent real people — real names and all, who were accused of murders they did not commit, and, despite having supposedly fair trials, were sentenced to death. All six of the people (five men and one woman), were eventually exonerated and set free. Their stories, though they have relatively happy endings, are terrifying, with surprising bits of levity, reflecting the real words of the once-condemned.
With Delaware’s Bill 19 to repeal the Death Penalty awaiting a vote in the House, it’s easy to assume that this play is political. And, certainly, the possibility of innocent people put to death will make the viewer think hard about the issue. But THE EXONERATED really isn’t a political piece. No one wants to see the system fail innocent people, regardless of where they stand.
Blank and Jensen interviewed more than 40 exonerated former Death Row inmates. They selected a cross section of cases for the six people who tell their stories, representing three black men, two white men, and one white woman (racism played a clear part in some of the cases, while others were victims of more generalized corruption or plain laziness).
The narrator (in a way) is the charismatic Delbert, played by David Alan Anderson. Delbert was picked up for “matching” the description of a killer in Florida, let go, and later arrested in Mississippi, where he was convicted. He didn’t match the description other than the color of his skin.
Kerry, played by Anthony Lawton, had an unconsummated one-night-stand with a woman as a young man, and his fingerprint was found in her apartment months later after she was murdered. The jury was never told that the fingerprint could have been left long before the murder.
Robert, played by Akeem Davis, worked at a horse track when a young white woman he’d spent time with turned up dead. As a young black man with a connection to the victim, he was found guilty of murder.
Gary, played by William Zielinski, discovered his parents brutally murdered on the family’s farm. He called 911 in shock. Hours later, he was the primary suspect, eventually tried and convicted of First Degree Murder in their deaths.
Sunny, played by Megan Bellwoar, was a young wife and mother who, with her husband, got mixed up with drug dealer who shot two police officers while they were in the car. Though Sunny was kidnapped by the killer, he told investigators that she had been the shooter and made a deal, condemning her. She spent 26 years in prison as the first woman on death row before her exoneration, even though the killer retracted his statement more than two decades before.
Finally, there’s David, played by Frank X. At the age of 18, David, a young black man full of hope, was picked up for a murder he knew nothing about, tried and sentenced to death. He kept the faith, and was eventually set free, but not before losing 8 years behind bars. (The real David Keaton, the first exonerated death row inmate in Florida, attended the opening night show and spoke afterward, along with Seth Penalver, the person most recently exonerated in Florida).
All of the actors are engaging in their roles, bringing the stories to life on a minimalist set (Penalver was so moved by the realism of Akeem Davis as Robert, his former real-life cellmate, that he hugged him afterward as if he really were his old friend). Sometimes the actors sit in chairs telling their stories, often accompanied by their spouses, played by Alme Donna Kelly and Susan Riley Stevens. Sometimes scenes are acted out — detectives interrogate, police confront, judges overrule. Families fall apart. Then, over an hour in, things shift. DNA evidence doesn’t match — exonerated. Members of a biker gang are discovered to be the killers of Gary’s parents — exonerated. One by one, the wrongly condemned are acquitted or have their charges dismissed.
To say that THE EXONERATED is a show that sticks with you is an understatement. Whatever your position is on the Death Penalty, this is a show that will get under your skin.
by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Directed by David Bradley
February 19 – March 9, 2014
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE 19801