Yes, this is me playing catch up!
This documentary piece explores the stories of 6 innocent people (5 men, one woman; 3 black, 3 white) unjustly imprisoned on death row. These are their words, and there is no need to embroider such vivid accounts. The play presents itself as a seated-reading, with onstage scripts, stands, stools, and microphones. But the telling remains eloquent and full of life. When you realize that this has actually happened, the drama is almost unnecessary. There is a certain bravery in telling these stories, over and over again. That is the beauty of verbatim: getting the word out. You can't write this stuff. Seriously.
This one on time when I felt strangely alone in an audience. Here I was, alone and American in a room full of expectant Brits and Europeans, listening to stories that I almost knew before they began. The cultural temperature was interesting only because I was caught in its cross-wind. Certainly, I received this piece much differently from most others in the room. The jokes about OJ Simpson, the fashions, the prison situations. The Racism. Sexism. Government and political corruption. The fact that we perpetuate the Death Penalty at all. I know the context, the north and south, the place where things like this are possible. They do happen. Speaking to my group afterward, it was clear that the issues raised by the play are different here than they are at home. Racism isn't as black and white in the UK. Jess couldn't comprehend the south; she didn't even know what a confederate flag was. Or the confederacy itself for that matter. And I tried, fumbling, to adequately explain how black men barely have a chance sometimes. That the cycle of crime perpetuates itself, and boys can get caught up in it. That the public outcry for justice will often result in a media frenzy just to get a conviction so someone pays the price for the crime. That the political divides are as cartoonish as you might imagine. That our president was responsible in his days as governor for administering lethal justice to numbers that cannot be matched. And that there are people who support this emphatically.
The Exonerated didn't raise any questions for me. It was a fairly straightforward detailing as you might expect. It was enough to be what it was. Colleen and I agree, however, that one of the best opportunities presented by verbatim theatre is the ability to present the gray area between issues, where you are left with more questions than answers. Inspiring change, provoking thought, you know? Maybe it was too easy to forget about this play because the ending was so neat; they were all freed. They suffered, and are forever damaged, but they are free.
(But basic percentages tell us there are others. What do we do about them?)
The Exonerated continues through 11 June 2006 at the Riverside Studios. Check with the box office for celebrity participation.