BY LAUREN CAVALLI
Special to The Post and Courier
“The Exonerated” is a play that puts racial profiling, America’s flawed justice system and brutal police tactics on stage for all to see. You’ll walk out the doors of the theater with lines from six powerfully delivered monologues ringing in your ears and, perhaps, rethinking your political views.
Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, “The Exonerated,” based on actual cases, chronicles the lives of six people who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, then later proven innocent and released from prison. After a successful run last year, Midtown Productions has brought the play back for Piccolo Spoleto Festival.
The stories of Delbert Tibbs (Keith Alston), Robert Hayes (Maurice McPherson), and David Keaton (Andre Hinds) bring the issue of racism within police forces to the forefront of the play. Alston was especially moving playing a poet who couldn’t imagine he would be found guilty of a crime for which there was no DNA evidence that placed him at the scene. Yet, sure enough, he was arrested. The only thing he had in common with the actual criminal was the color of his skin.
“If you’re black and you’re arrested for a sex crime you might as well have done it because you’re going to be convicted for it,” Tibbs says.
The play’s subject matter is especially relevant, as Americans continue to discuss the significance of recent high-profile cases, such as the killings of Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and others.
The play teaches us that once someone is wrongfully convicted of a violent crime, he might eventually be released, but he is not free. The stigma of the arrest clouds perceptions; the bitterness from years wasted lingers; the nightmares don’t end. The cast of “The Exonerated” turned the word “trauma” into a tangible thing.
David Loar’s performance was strongest when he gets lost thinking about his brother’s despair. When his brother is murdered, Loar’s expression of grief is so poignant it’s dizzying.
Margaret Nyland as Sunny Jacobs, the only wrongfully convicted female in the play, started small but finished big. Jacobs spent 17 years in prison and only endured by resorting to pen and paper. Her letters to her husband, also wrongfully jailed for the same crime, were all she had left.
The script’s strengths were in the details that showcase our humanity, like Jacobs’ and her husband’s use of Japanese dictionaries to carry on their love through letters to one another.
The minimal staging — a couple of stairs that led up to a wood-planked stage and several black chairs — left nothing to distract from the cast. Sound effects were used to enhance the monologues, but they felt more genuine when there was silence.
Although “The Exonerated” may be too emotionally heavy for some, hearing the testaments of these individuals who spent as little as 21/2 years to as much as 22 years in prison is to learn about what it is that makes us human. This is a play about faith, resilience and beginning again.
“The Exonerated” continues at Threshold Repertory Theatre, 841/2 Society St., with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 for adults, $26 for seniors and students. A portion of the proceeds from this production is being donated to The Innocence Project.
Lauren Cavalli is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.