Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s “The Exonerated” is dedicated to “the exonerated” and “those who are still waiting.” The piece follows six wrongfully convicted prisoners from the time of their arrest until the time of their release. This past weekend, it was presented in the Arthur Miller Theater by the Department of Musical Theatre under the direction of Geoff Packard, LSA Lecturer of Drama.
Rather than following one story through to its conclusion, the work constantly fluctuates between different stories. The play starts soon after each prisoner’s arrest for a crime they did not commit. Though the audience may not see the connections between each prisoner at first, the police’s conduct soon makes this connection clear; in every instance, some mix of racism, police bias and faulty prosecutorial practices lead the inmates to be wrongfully convicted.
From the beginning, the play was held together by the simple beauty of its production. The set was simple: three black boxes organized in steps and twelve black, armless desk chairs. The lighting was similarly elegant and minimal: purple lights highlighting the concrete wall in the back of theater, frequent blackouts and spotlights accompanying the changes in scene.
Between scenes, the cast would hum and wordlessly sing brief melodic passages, accompanied by simple recordings of a guitar at some points and a piano at others. While melodically and harmonically simple, these brief interludes did much to punctuate the otherwise heavy subject matter.
As the School of Music, Theatre & Dance had advised, the production contained multiple instances of strong language. In one instance in particular, a prisoner’s false arrest and conviction is accompanied by clear racial bias on the part of the police — they are depicted using the n-word casually and repeatedly to refer to this prisoner. While this callous use of the n-word was perhaps realistic, it was hard to palette.
This set the tone for the next half hour of the play, as it moved between various failures of the criminal justice system. One prisoner was convicted on questionable forensic evidence, another on the false testimony of a murderer who immediately reached a plea deal with the police. And in every instance, these prisoners’ lives were torn apart as they were convicted of a crime that they did not commit.
From there, the play focused on their collective experiences in prison, some more pleasant than others. The play also began to focus on the death penalty and the morality of the prisoners being put on death row. “Why do we do that?” one prisoner asked.
In one particularly jarring instance, as a prisoner on stage spoke about execution by electric chair, the lights over the audience flashed bright white three times. All around me, audience members muttered in fright and surprise — lighting designer Emily Miu more than succeeded in shocking her audience, assuming this was her goal.
As the play moved past these false convictions and lengthy imprisonments, however, it began to lose steam. The exoneration prior to execution of every prisoner (save one prisoner’s husband), for example, felt a little unrealistic. Up until this point, the play had succeeded in its suspension of disbelief. But the sudden change from extremely dark subject matter to inspiring legal challenges made me question the plot, particularly the selection of these six specific cases and the degree to which they are representative of the larger American criminal justice system.
The play’s depiction of women, furthermore, was lacking. Most of the women were wives of wrongfully convicted prisoners; throughout the play, they existed on stage solely through the wrongful convictions of their husbands.
The play featured one female prisoner, a woman convicted of murder and sentenced to death row along with her husband. Though she made it out of prison, her husband was executed. And in the end, she framed the remainder of her life largely through her husband’s wrongful execution and the time that she had lost with him. The women in the play lacked autonomy — a feature of the mid-20th-century setting of the play that nevertheless felt like a slight moral failing.
On the whole, the play was a poignant reminder of the pressure that many police forces feel to arrest a suspect for violent crimes, and thus the frequent wrongful convictions that permeate the criminal justice system. It was a dark, serious narrative that was troubling and hard to watch at times. And yet I left convinced of the failures of our criminal justice system and committed to working to fix this problem. It was something that I will not soon forget – something that I will no doubt be thinking about for a long time.