Imagine for a moment that you are on death row for a crime that you did not commit. This sounds like an impossible situation, one that could only happen on television, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
Next Thursday, March 27, the School of Theatre will open “The Exonerated,” a play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. The show details the stories of six individuals who were on death row and then exonerated by the justice system after new evidence revealed their innocence.
Dr. Cyndee Brown, associate professor in theater, shared her experience directing this a powerful and important piece.
What can you tell us about the story of this piece and the impact it has had?
This is a play that was taken from interviews, court transcripts and court records of all kinds. It details the experiences of six people who were convicted of crimes and sentenced to death and eventually exonerated because they were innocent. In some ways it puts a microscope over the legal system, our court systems. Obviously, it puts a microscope over the issue of the death penalty as well.
This play also, the playwrights speculate, had something to do with governor George Ryan’s decision to commute the sentences of everyone on death row here in Illinois. He saw this play when they brought it to Chicago and he did see it and spent hours after the play talking to the actors. And of course he never said, “I decided to do this because I saw The Exonerated,” but they speculate that they had a part in the commutation of those sentences.
Where did Blank and Jensen get the inspiration to begin a project like this?
The playwrights have actually written a book about their process called Living Justice. Jessica brought Erik to a social justice presentation with someone on death row, and they managed to somehow get a hook up to the prisoner and had a brief conversation with him. That’s when they heard his voice and it became real for them and they said, “This is wrong. We need to do something about this.” So they went to someone, and they were told if they could get something together before the election that year, they could have X number of thousands of dollars to complete the project. After that, they spent months driving to people’s homes and listening to their stories.
What is your perspective on the death penalty after directing The Exonerated?
Frankly, for a long time I didn’t think about the death penalty. I didn’t have to think about the death penalty. After working on this play and doing the research, however, I am becoming very much opposed to the death penalty. We make mistakes, and that is the kind of irrevocable mistake we can’t make and just say “oops!”
This play has affected me in ways that no other play I have ever directed has. As I told
someone before, I think I am going to have to do something. Not just talk about it, not just think about it, not just do a play and walk away from it. I don’t think this one is going to let go of me in that way.
We have also had some very interesting conversations with people affiliated with the criminal justice system with the cast. Many of these people, or at least the exonerees in this play, were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and what do you do about that? Most of the students didn’t know what their rights were, which really frightened the member of the criminal justice system!
Will those attending the play learn about what those rights are and see how they can be overlooked?
They will see what happens to these people because they trusted the criminal justice system. They think, “I was innocent, and they’ll know I was innocent, so I’ll do what they tell me.” There are cases of people making up evidence. “Prosecutorial misconduct” is a phrase that is thrown about a lot, where the prosecutors lie and misrepresent and mislead. And I don’t mean to disrespect public defenders. They have a heck of a job to do, and most of them do it remarkably well, representing people who are very difficult to represent.
We did reach a point in the conversation when our member of the criminal justice system said, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to fix it. I don’t think we’re going to be able to change it.” And so the cast said, “What do we do?” And I said, “We’re doing it when we do this play, right?”
To think, as an artist, that you can contribute to a conversation that’s this important. That has been a mantle that these actors have truly put on and thought, “This matters.”