In the summer of 2000 script writers Jessica Blank and her husband Erik Jensen interviewed 40 of the 89 Death Row inmates in the US to create the play The Exonerated : a disturbing testimony of the American legal system. Corruption; ignorance; racism and ambition. In many ways everything bad about the desperate rush to convict. In these testimonies the victims are those charged; those convicted and subsequently those exonerated.
This verbatim theatre is dramatically brought to life by the cold emotive performances of its cast. Perhaps I am glamorising the production thus by talking about the present and previous artists who have appeared in Bob Balaban’s award-winning New York production of the Exonerated which started its sixteen week run at the Riverside studios in Hammersmith on the 21st February last. The list is exceptionally impressive: Robin Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, Vanessa Redgrave, Alanis Morissette, Danny Glover and Kathleen Turner to name but six. The names of the A-listers from both sides of the Atlantic who have appeared in the play goes on and on. But this story is not one of glamour, but a true story of six very different people who were condemned to death in the American penal system for crimes that they did not commit. Crimes for which they spent decades on death row awaiting their execution.
The Exonerated is made up of their true-life stories, in their own words. The tale of Sunny Jacobs, a mother of two who spent 16 years on Death Row on the basis of false evidence; Kerry Max Cook, a Texan who was wrongly convicted of murder; Delbert Tibbs, a black Chicago poet who was falsely accused of rape and murder while hitchhiking across America.
The performances are spell binding; compulsive and somewhat surprisingly invigorating. Whilst the cast changes every few days, the star performance is Sunny Jacobs her quiet resilience illuminates the stage, every word her character speaks (and when I attended she was played by Stockard Channing from the West Wing, although if you are lucky you may actually get the opportunity to witness Sunny playing herself – now that must be harrowing) is to a silent audience hungry to devour her every word. Not only was Sunny on death row for a murder that she did not commit, but so too was her husband Jesse Tafero, under identical circumstances. He was not however exonerated. He lost his life to the currents of the electric chair “It took thirteen and a half minutes for Jesse to die. Three jolts of electricity that lasted fifty five seconds each. Almost a minute. Each. Until finally flames shot out from his head, and smoke came from his ears”
This is not a play for the faint hearted, but it is a play about hope. In places it is terrifying, disturbing and unforgiving. But then again, this is the real world. It is to be recommended.