Innocent convicts who are trapped on death row lend their voices to Rarely Done’s The Exonerated
By James MacKillop
Most Americans support the death penalty, unlike the citizens of other industrial democracies.
Polls numbers vary, but an even two-thirds, 66.6 percent, is about average. Some of our countrymen express their support with passionate enthusiasm. We heard this at the Sept. 7 Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about the 254 executions that took place in one year of his term. Many in the crowd cheered lustily at the record high number. They cheered again when Perry opined that he never gave the deaths a moment’s reflection. Getting us to face up to the human cost of such attitudes is what Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated intends to do. It’s the current show from Rarely Done Productions at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St.
Many of the people who oppose capital punishment are better-educated sorts, Christian and Jewish clergy as well as secular intellectuals. Champions of the death penalty bracket such opinions as “elitist” and thus dismiss them. With this in mind, it should not surprise audiences that the language of The Exonerated is often rough, with frequent instances of profanity and the N-word. Bland and Jensen interviewed more than 40 people, male and female, white and black, who had been condemned to death row but were later found innocent. Although one was a published poet and another a man of God, the wrongly convicted never seem to include the well-mannered children of bankers and stockbrokers. From those many the authors have selected six representative characters who were eventually exonerated, but not before facing execution by the state.
The six characters declaim. Although they occasionally interact, with Casey Hunter and Tom Ferlito playing a series of good but more often bad cops, the six usually speak through the fourth wall to us. Delbert (Charles Anderson) sits and read from diaries and letters. Robert (Anthony Wright) and Gary (David Minikheim) bring female supporters, played by Sheena Solomon and Theresa Constantine. All start in the same place, incredulous that they ever found themselves in such a jam. As Sunny (Anne Fitzgerald) wails, “I’m a vegetarian. How could you possibly think I would murder someone?” Then again, geography counts. Except for one victim in Illinois, all are residents in one of the former states of the Confederacy and speak with Southern accents.
One might expect the cliché of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there was nothing wrong with Gary’s having visited his parents’ home, and he could not have known that killers would visit the place shortly after where his fingerprints were found in abundance. If they engaged in any reckless behavior, it was not lawbreaking. Robert, a black young man in the South, flaunted his having sexual intimacies with a consenting white girlfriend. Similarly, Kerry (Robb Sharpe) should have sensed danger when a female tenant was given to exhibitionism, making herself a magnet for the wrong kind of men. If she could attract Kerry so easily, she could just as readily draw more threatening sorts.
Although not one is an isolated misfit in the Boo Radley mold, neither are they Rotarians. Sunny is a self-described flower child who travels in an entourage. Her steady man Jesse is accused along with her, but not as lucky as she. David (Michael Dean Anderson) calls on the Lord to change the weather, and Delbert probably strikes small-town straights as a trifle weird. Put in a historical context, these were also the kind of offenses that could get you hauled up for witchcraft in 1692 Salem.
Once prejudicial juries, unpersuaded by indifferent public defenders, had shoved the six into the dark chute leading to death row, the chances of escape steadily receded. Innocent personality traits could magnify the misery. Boastful Kerry, who had worked in a gay bar though straight himself, suffered the worst. He found himself the repeated victim of prison rape, his body cut with proprietary marks by predators that claimed him for their own. Sunny was able to gain conjugal visits with Jesse, but she stayed in prison long enough to see him executed before she was exonerated.
Kerry, a resident in a Texas prison before the tenure of Gov. Rick Perry, heard the names of the executed, releasing how many of them he had come to know while waiting his turn.
The sufferings of death row represent the climax of each of the six narratives, and it feels strange to report that, in the hands of director Linda Lance, anger does not turn out to be the prime emotion. Some, like Delbert, are astonishingly detached, while Sunny could be called ironic. No one shouts or rattles a tin cup on the bars as in the old Warner Brothers movies. The unexpected calm, of course, makes the outrage more gripping and horrifying.
A second unexpected element in the play is the lack of a Perry Mason moment, where the missing piece of evidence is miraculously uncovered. Barry Scheck and his industrious graduate students do not ride to the rescue, and there is no 60 Minutes expose by heroic journalists. Exoneration comes haphazardly and anti-climactically. The advent of DNA evidence frees up other cases which impact, domino-like, those before us. Evidence from federal investigations filters down to state cases. The real killer confesses.
The same sentiment that cheers the execution of 254 in Texas is reluctant to let the exonerated go. Although Sunny was cleared by 1979 she was not actually released for 12 years. Incarceration on death row, although innocent, can keep you from getting a job with the racing commission or from buying a gun.
As a director, Linda Lance has been much associated with Appleseed Productions, the United Artists of community theater. Her move to the up-close-andpersonal venue of Jazz Central greatly enhances the power of these stories of judicial outrage. Her performers face unequal tasks, with heavier lifting going to veterans Anne Fitzgerald, David Minikheim and Robb Sharpe, who achieves a career high. Anthony Wright, so memorable in Appleseed’s Parade last year, seethes with justified indignation. Charles Anderson, a former elected official, upends stereotypes—that such a gentle man should have been on death row. Michael Dean Anderson, once a regular with Shattuck-Nye Productions, is again a pleasure to watch and hear.
When hundreds cheer for death in Simi Valley, it pays to hear the voices of those who just missed being statistics.
This production runs through Friday, Oct. 28. See Times Table for information.