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Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh in The ExoneratedPictures at a Non-Execution
By Jonathan Kalb




The Exonerated
By Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
45 Bleecker Theater (at Lafayette)
(212) 307-4100


It was only a matter of time before reality theater (or docudrama, if you prefer) found the subject of capital punishment. Charlie Victor Romeo, back in 2000, was scripted entirely from transcripts of "black-box" cockpit recordings made moments before actual airplane crashes. The same year, The Laramie Project came from testimonial interviews about a gruesome homophobic murder in Wyoming. Anna Deavere Smith's most prominent impersonated- interviewee pieces, in 1992 and 1993, were about deadly riots in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Reality theater (with important exceptions such as The Vagina Monologues) has frequently traded on the dramatic appeal of violent death--strongly implying that the taste for the form has as much to do with gladiator games and public hangings as with sincere pathos or noble curiosity about the complex nets of history.

From one perspective, The Exonerated might be seen as the quintessence of this tradition. Constructed by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen primarily from interview-extracts with six Americans released from death row after imprisonments ranging from two to twenty-two years, its horrifying focus is the awful machinery of state-administered death in the United States, with a healthy measure of true-crime background information thrown in for our rubbernecking pleasure. Bob Balaban has "staged" the piece as a reading, with actors sitting on stools behind music stands with scripts--a "humble" documentarian presentation that is crucial to the work's quiet power. Oddly enough, allowing the material's factuality to speak for itself enhances its sensationalism in the end. By the same token, the steady flow of marquee names in the rotating cast--Richard Dreyfuss and Jill Clayburgh among the first--makes the enterprise seem like a vital public service (and ensures media coverage, of course). The Exonerated has been running for five months at the 45 Bleecker Theater, and has already been mounted in several other U.S. cities, also with stars.

For all this P.R. scaffolding, however, I found that The Exonerated also had a strength of its own that melted my cynicism about the opportunism and sensationalism of its form. For one thing, the work presents an important twist: none of its protagonists die. All are saved at the eleventh hour, for a variety of reasons. Sunny Jacobs, convicted along with her husband of killing two policemen in the 1970s, was released thirteen years after the real murderer confessed (and a decade after her husband was executed). Gary Gauger, a mild-mannered shopowner convicted of stabbing and nearly decapitating his parents, was released after an appeals court ruled that his confession had been coerced (evidence arose later pointing to a biker gang and its savage initiation rites). Delbert Tibbs, a black hitchhiker convicted by an all-white jury of raping a white girl and killing her white male companion, was released after the prosecutor became convinced he was framed by the police. Kerry Max Cook, a 17-year-old convicted of the rape and mutilation-murder of a 21-year-old Texas woman, was granted three trials, due to police and prosecutorial misconduct, and was freed after twenty-two years when DNA evidence proved he couldn't have done it. The real subject of the evening, in other words, isn't death itself but life lived under the threat of imminent doom, not criminal violence per se but rather the sickening loss of time and human potentiality that come from overreaction to it.

The Exonerated offers the spectacle of a public non-execution, multiplied six times. Making no attempt to draw tragic or pseudo-tragic frames around essentially arbitrary events, it avoids the trap of imposing forms and meanings that the material doesn't really possess. Instead, the piece's very clever strategy is to use what might be called the "porn-appeal" of real electrocutions, gassings, and hangings as a lure, redirecting the public's fascination with them toward fascination with their non-occurrence. Unlikely as it may seem, this approach creates the conditions for meaningful political thought. Not that anyone who has studied the subject of capital punishment will find anything factually new in The Exonerated. The arbitrariness of its protagonists, however, is a terrifying reminder that everyone in America, citizen and non-citizen, is equally vulnerable to the forces described: among them, police racism and ubiquitous political pressure to identify culprits quickly for high-profile crimes. "I'm no different from you," says Kerry Max Cook. "I wasn't a street thug, I wasn't trash, I came from a good family, if it happened to me, man, it can happen to anyone."

One feels this note of real vulnerability reverberating through the audience as it leaves The Exonerated. The night I attended, some people stayed for more than twenty minutes, chatting with friends and strangers about tales that, in fictional form, would likely have left them scampering off to the next titillation. The particular knot left in the stomach here may be a private affair to begin with (one can't help reflecting on what is important in one's life and cherishing it anew), but it is married to an unmistakably political recognition: that (especially with capital punishment having been unconstitutional in America as recently as the 1970s), the circumstances behind the catastrophes in question are--horribly and hopefully--under our control.


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