Andraes Hunt as one of the wrongfully incarcerated in The Exonerated.
Andraes Hunt as one of the wrongfully incarcerated in The Exonerated.
Photo by Gary Griffin

The Exonerated Gets a Thrillingly Relevant Staging

Issue plays, plays that concern some type of problematic and troubling social concern, don’t always age well. Times change, moral lines move, technology/science/knowledge increases, generational norms shift and suddenly the issue, once so fist-poundingly urgent, flickers dimly like the last embers of a once mighty fire.

But what if the issue persists? And persists so strongly that it’s almost impossible to tell that the play wasn’t written just yesterday? Such is the case with Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s, The Exonerated, a simple yet powerful play concerned with vindicated death row inmates. Six of them to be exact.

Blank and Jensen spent two years interviewing hundreds of men and women who had been wrongly accused and sentenced to death, some of them incarcerated for 20-plus years. The result is a 2002 award-winning docu-play that recounts the unfathomable experiences of Delbert Tibbs, Kerry Max Cook, Gary Gauger, David Keaton, Robert Earl Hayes and Sunny Jacobs in their own words gleaned from interviews, court transcripts and letters.

The thing is, 16 years later, the issues raised in the play are disturbingly still prevalent.

Three of the incarcerated characters are black men accused of murderous crimes against white men and women. Crimes where the accused weren’t present at the scene and had no motive or evidence against them. Yet, because of the color of their skin and the racist views of the arresting officers, they were deemed guilty, and continued under that handicap throughout their trials. The present Black Lives Matter movement may be most publicly focused on police shootings of black citizens, but this type of racist railroad injustice certainly underpins the community’s shouts of ‘no more’.

The three white inmates, two male, and one female, are all victims of police tactics designed to psychologically torture the accused in order to get conviction numbers up. Sleep deprivation, coercion into false confession, emotional abuse, it's all on display in these cases. These same kind of deplorable methods were just recently exposed in the 2015 Netflix mega-hit, Making a Murderer, about the case of Stephen Avery. We watched the show with horror, collectively shuddering at the amoral means some of our law enforcement utilize and the questionable results they yield.

Living in Houston, this play has an even greater personal resonance. Texas still holds the record of the most executions in the country, putting to death nearly five times more individuals than any other state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Currently, there are approximately 230 inmates on Texas' death row and the state accounted for 30 percent of the nation’s 23 executions in 2017.

So, yes, the play is still painfully relevant, if somewhat reductive in its characterizations. Any trace of character tic is washed away from these six inmates to hit home the point of their absolute and unquestionable innocence while legal and justice systems members are all painted as corrupt or inept. But relevance alone, even tidied up for effect, isn’t enough to make for a great show. And lucky us, this is where Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. steps in and delivers one of the most pressing, nuanced and emotionally present productions of the season.

The set (Malinda L. Beckham, Scenic Designer and also the show’s director) is minimal. On a smoky, dimly lit stage with a backdrop of white chalk tally marks, sit the five black chairs our accused will sit in or stand near to the entire show. Only one of the exonerated, a poet narrator of sorts, who also reveals his personal story, moves around to deliver his benedictions on survival under these circumstances.

Directed with heart-in-throat tautness, Beckham allows for some welcome surprises amid this almost movementless staging. Guitar playing and singing features prominently as one of the exonerated plays country/blues style segues in between the characters round robin recounting of how they got arrested, incarcerated, spent time on death row and eventually were freed. Streaky spotlights highlight each character as they astound us with heartbreaking snippets of downfall and redemption. Some reach for religion, some for love, others curl into themselves and yet all are broken in palpable ways, making us ache for each character equally.

In addition to the six, we also meet three wives (often seated on stage with their respective husbands to give witness to the experience) and a rotating ensemble of cops, judges and witnesses that appear on stage to illustrate portions of testimony, court proceedings, police interrogations and even crime scenes.

Together, this cast also operates as part of the sound design of the play. A helicopter is mentioned by one character in spotlight; those in darkness beat their chests to evoke a chopper’s noise. Rain is invoked by a character; pitter-pats of various speeds, sounds and tenor come from the cast. Shots ring out and crowd scenes are shouted, spiritual whisperings are hissed…all from the mouths and bodies of the characters in darkness. It’s so darn smart and effective that we almost lose the dialogue of the play marveling and the invention. Kudos to Soundscape Designer, Alli Villines for showing us that low tech can have big impact.

But what really makes this show thrum with must-see energy is the outstanding performance by each and every member of the cast. It’s not unusual in a six-person individual narrative to feel less drawn to one character than another, but not in this case. Sure their stories are equally tragic and demanding of our sympathy, and yes Blank and Jensen wisely throw in some well-earned humor to break up the bleakness, but it’s thanks to the performances that we care not one bit which character we’re watching at any one time.

You’ll notice that those stories, the particulars about the supposed crimes, aren’t detailed in this review, and that’s on purpose. Much of the reward of this show is learning what these folks were accused of, how they dealt with it, and how even after their freedom, their prison experiences haunt. How they are forever changed and not for the better. But watching the exonerated, Dave Osbie Shepard, John Patterson, Todd Thigpen, Travis Ammons, Andraes Hunt and Holly Vogt Wilkison and trying to pick the most affecting of the bunch is like parsing superlative from superb. Each of these tremendous performances deserves praise, as does Dirt Dog for showcasing talents we rarely see in Houston.

Also outstanding are the ensemble players, Niesha Bentley, Bill Giffen Jimmy Vollman, Katrina Ellsworth Ammons, Melissa J. Mayo and Michael Pickett who encircle the core cast and bring their narratives to life as supporting characters.

If there is one quibble with the production, it’s the close of the show, which could have ended on a perfectly gut-punching moment, a glimmer of not quite hope, but a small victory amidst all the sadness. It would have been the perfect ending. Instead, Beckham douses this spell and assembles her cast (looking uncomfortably apologetic in this shift of tone) to the front of the stage for a musical number, erasing the power of what came before.

After everything we’ve seen, the last thing we need is actors smiling and singing a closing song. Or even not smiling and singing as was the case for some. Let the emotions sit there. Unadorned. We can take it. We need to take it. Trust your audience.

The Exonerated continues through March 24 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-561-5113 or 713-521-4533 or visit dirtdogstheatre.org or matchouston.org. $22 and Pay What You Can Sundays and Mondays.

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