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The Exonerated: A Docudrama

“Before acting in this play I philosophically didn’t have a problem with the death penalty. What I’ve learned is that the problems lie in implementation.” So says two-time Tony Award-winning actor Brian Dennehy during a post-show talk some fifteen minutes after receiving a standing ovation from a Minnesota audience. Dennehy refers to his experience playing Gary Gauger in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play, The Exonerated.  Dennehy’s character is a man mistakenly convicted of murdering his parents. Touring cities across the United States, this penetrating docudrama shares the struggles of six wrongly convicted death row inmates.

Viewers skeptical of such celebrity pronouncements have little reason to take Dennehy’s observations as authoritative. Indeed, Plato viewed actors as at least three times removed from truth, and he may well have been right. Nor should politically weary theatergoers necessarily embrace the anti-death penalty rhetoric voiced by the slightly more credible flock of lawyers and journalists who flanked Dennehy during the post-show discussion at Minneapolis’ State Theater.  Instead, all of the evidence necessary to sour our nation’s increasingly insatiable appetite for the death penalty comes from the play itself. Entirely created from verbatim interviews and trial transcripts of five men and one woman sentenced to death for murders they did not commit, The Exonerated confronts anyone committed to the premise that our criminal justice system always fairly administers its ultimate penalty.

The marketing of the touring production of The Exonerated, a play that has run off-Broadway for close to two years, creates the impression of a star-vehicle for two of theater’s brightest lights. Indeed, entering the front entrance of the theater requires the audience to walk under a brightly lit marquee listing only the title of the play and the equally large names of Brian Dennehy and Lynn Redgrave. Exonerated Once in the theater, however, the audience quickly observes a spartan set-up reminiscent of an old-style readers theater, consisting of only ten chairs and ten music stands. In reality Dennehy and Redgrave are only two members of a balanced ensemble of ten actors. For the next ninety minutes, this fine ensemble painfully recounts the stories of six innocent people whose lives were systematically wrecked by convictions of capital crimes. Whether instigated by overly zealous police interrogations, institutional racism, and/or self-motivated jailhouse snitches, the trials of these innocent victims produced guilty verdicts and shattered lives.

Within the wreckage, some elements of certain stories standout. Sunny Jacobs, played subtly by Redgrave, becomes the only woman of her time to sit on death row in Florida. Incarcerated for over two decades, Sunny endures the execution of her husband, who was, along with her, wrongly convicted of murdering a police officer. She regains her freedom only when the true killer unexpectedly confesses. Like Sunny, Kerry Max Cook, played sensitively by Bruce Macvittie, spends his adult life on death row. Despite compelling evidence of another credible suspect, Cook’s case slips through the cracks of the Texas legal system for decades until DNA evidence finally clears him.

Sadly, three of the life stories shared within The Exonerated recount the all-too-common experience of lower income African American men falling prey to death penalty sentences. This assemblage of men finds themselves more susceptible to the death penalty than their white counterparts convicted of similar crimes. For these men–Robert Hayes, David Keaton, and Delbert Tibbs–a lethal legal cocktail of racism, circumstantial evidence, and shoddy public defenders produce three wrongful convictions. Their stories, unapologetically told from their own perspectives, rattle the audience with a heavy dose of brutality and social injustice. The cliché phrase “But for the grace of God go I” suddenly seems fresh and new.

Ironically, examples of grace supply a recurring and moving theme of The Exonerated. Despite unimaginable circumstances, the six survivors documented in this play repeatedly flash moments of hope tempered by faith: hope that justice will eventually be done and faith that their God will see them through. Perhaps, in some way, these qualities account for their unlikely survival. As the audience is continually reminded, these are not the stories of people who were pardoned or had their sentences commuted. These persecuted souls were all ultimately proven innocent! Sadly, the reversals of their death sentences unilaterally come from extraordinary efforts to free them from outside sources; the normal legal proceedings failed them. In light of the numbing odds prior to exoneration, the faith and hope displayed by this forsaken group proves nothing short of inspiring.

Robert Hayes, played with kindness by David Brown, Jr., stands out. Early in the drama, Hayes shares the story of a basketball game conducted in the death row prison yard. With the electric chair plainly in view through the uncovered window of the nearby death chamber, Hayes and his fellow inmates lament the rainstorm that interrupts one of their few opportunities to step outdoors. Defiantly, Hayes shouts, “In the name of Jesus, I command this rain to stop!” When the rain abruptly stops, a stunned fellow inmate offers, “Man, if you do that again, I’ll start believing in Jesus.” The rain instantly starts again, and Hayes performs the same mini-miracle to the awe of his bewildered basketball partner. David Robbin’s simple but effective sound design scores this moment with a fierce rainstorm abruptly starting and stopping precisely on Hayes’ verbal commands. This event brings to mind a television interview I saw some time ago with a prison warden in which the warden dismissively commented on how many of his death row inmates “find Jesus” prior to their execution. “You’d think that Jesus lives on death row,” the warden sneered. If The Exonerated shows anything, it illustrates that Jesus does live on death row–the best of all men among the least of these his brethren.

Such displays of faith woven throughout The Exonerated should not be construed as easy and pat solutions for lives leveled by injustice–there is no trite “chicken soup for the soul” in Blank and Jensen’s searing docudrama. The audience’s collective outrage only builds during the final third of the play when, after each verdict is overturned, the slow pace of the legal system forces the falsely convicted to remain on death row for months or, in some cases, years after their innocence is proven. When finally released, each character shares less than uplifting stories of what life is like post-exoneration. Gary Gauger deals with neighbors who remain convinced of his guilt. Kerry Max Cook enters life as a forty-something adolescent, a man deprived of growing up. Delbert Tibbs suffers from insomnia only interrupted by nightmares. Perhaps the saddest story of all returns to Robert Hayes, the man who stopped the rain. Finally free, he laments that his faith has weakened upon leaving prison. On the outside, he now struggles with drug addiction and violent fits of anger. During one particularly moving episode, the rainstorm sound cue returns (this time, symbolically), and Hayes once again cries out, “In the name of Jesus, I command this rain to stop!” Sadly, the storm only increases in decibel, filling the transitional blackout with the pounding volume of despair.

What can be done for these sad victims of miscarried justice? As a play, The Exonerated is too subtle to attempt an answer. The talk-back session following the play tries to proffer some hope of action, some promise of retribution. The lawyer on hand tells us that exonerated inmates are not permitted to sue for financial losses. Like a church service, ushers then
pass a plate to receive an offering that, we are told, will find its way to the six souls who lost decades of wages and opportunities. But as I slip a green piece of paper onto the plate, the complete and total inadequacy of the gesture bites the fingertips holding a bill too small, as if any bill could be large enough.

Again, Brian Dennehy speaks, this famous man who makes his living in the shoes of other people. Reminiscent of the blunt and earthy cops he often plays, Dennehy mixes religious metaphors in his final remark. “I’m guessing a lot of the choir is here tonight. We need to take this beyond the choir.” Glancing first at his fellow actors and then outward toward the audience, he concludes, “it’s like we are Paul, and you are, I don’t know, the Ephesians, or something. Preach this play. Change someone’s mind.”

Flashback to the closing moments of the production of The Exonerated: the lights dim, reducing the sitting actors bodies to nothing but ten silhouettes. The sound of rain pours down yet again, and yet again the voice of Robert Hayes pleads from the darkness, “In the name of Jesus, I command this rain to stop!”

It stops.

But has the rain truly stopped for Hayes and his brother and sisters? In the name of Jesus, perhaps we must command this rain to stop.

Robert Hubbard is associate professor of theatre and speech at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.
Robert J. Hubbard

Robert J. Hubbard

Robert Hubbard teaches Theater at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.