About a year ago, an actress with whom I worked with back in my acting days, came to Manchester to visit and see Hope Mill Theatre.
She handed me some scripts that she’d been reading to browse and get some inspiration for productions.
One of these pieces was The Exonerated; a play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.
During the summer of 2000, Jensen and Blank traveled to interview 40 former death row inmates who had been freed by the state after having served as much as 22 years in prison. The play premiered Off Broadway in 2002 and received many awards (including a Drama Desk Award). It was the made in to a film in 2005 starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover. A production ran at the Riverside Studios in London, 2006.
At the time of reading the play I was also watching true crime documentaries on Netflix such as The Staircase and Confession Tapes, along with my husband Will, and we were so engrossed in these horrendous stories of a justice system gone horrifically wrong.
As UK citizens it seems so alien to us that a system set up to protect and serve could be so corrupt and end up jailing innocent people and, in some cases, sentencing them to death.
So many of us find these programmes addictive and in many cases can watch episodes back to back late in to the evening.
Why do we find these stories so moving and how do we relate?
I believe the answer is – because they are human stories – and our inner sense of humanity and wanting to protect people who suffer wrong doing will always kick in. I watch these types of documentaries with a real feeling that I have lost all faith in humanity and those in higher positions will always win – as they have more money, more resources and more power. However, I am also left with that hopeful feeling that good will always prevail and that these individuals will find their path to freedom- which although is not as common – it is where we start The Exonerated.
Taken from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files and the public record, The Exonerated tells true stories of six wrongfully convicted survivors of death row in their own words.
Moving between first-person monologues, courtrooms and prisons; six interwoven stories paint a picture of an American criminal justice system gone horribly wrong—and of six brave souls who persevered to survive it.
I wanted to be brave with the staging of the piece and I also wanted the stories to be relatable and current. As we all know many of us now spend our lives watching screens and although I am a big believer in living in the moment and not being so consumed by the power of television and media – in some cases it is a vital way of sharing real stories and spreading awareness of international issues.
That is why I decided to make this Northern Premiere a complete multi media experience.
The whole play will take the audience on a journey as if they were sitting in their own living rooms watching a true crime documentary, then in to live theatrical flash backs of court cases, interrogations, murders and life living on death row.
The whole story is threaded together by the character of Delbert an older black Texan man who spent many years on death row for a crime he did not commit. He acts almost like a narrator to our piece, sharing with us some of his spoken word and poems that he wrote whilst on death row as well as his own personal story of how the justice system ruined his life.
I want people to have a completely unique theatre experience by coming to see The Exonerated. I want them to be moved by these incredible humans who through all the odds and with facing death square in the face – fought for their voices to be heard and their freedom to be granted.
Tickets are currently on sale – https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/the-exonerated/