In 2018, 151 people were marked in the National Registry of Exonerations after serving time for crimes they did not commit. Such a miscarriage of justice is nothing new on U.S. soil. Our nation tops the list of incarcerations worldwide, putting 2.3 million behind bars, according to Prison Policy Initiative. Of that number, around 1% are innocent.
Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen scoured public and legal records of five men and one woman of the 1%, and recount their experiences in the play “The Exonerated.” The show debuted Off-Broadway in 2002 and received numerous awards (Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle) before becoming a film in 2005.
Big Dawg Productions will be the first local theatre company to bring the show to Cape Fear Playhouse for the next three weekends. Directing is Josh Bailey, who calls it “the spiritual cousin to ‘The Laramie Project,’” in that they share a documentary style of telling important stories.
“I think this show is spectacular not only because it addresses an important topic, but also because every word in the play is something that was actually said; it really heightens the power of addressing tough topics,” Bailey explains.
The show follows the memories and storytelling of death-row convicts Delbert Tibbs (Robert Bellamy), Kerry Max Cook (Charles Auten), Gary Gauger (Rich Deike), David Keaton (Benjamin Hart), Robert Earl Hayes (Julien Scober) and Sunny Jacobs (Lupin Byers). The world around them will mimic their moments visually to match the script.
“We definitely try to highlight the interplay between the tone and topic of each moment,” Bailey tells, “making our greatest effort to weave them together so they become one story. Focusing on the realness of the play has also been a central message. Making sure we aren’t delving into over-dramatization or melodrama, but allowing these real human thoughts and moments to speak in the most natural manner.”
Robert Bellamy will portray Delbert Tibbs, a black man traveling America, who is accused of a crime while passing through a town. His race essentially put him behind bars, not evidence.
“He was convicted of raping a white woman,” Bellamy tells. “He had to fight for his freedom, and the truth that he stood for and his actions have impacted men and women regardless of race to fight for their validity.”
Innocent black inmates spend 10.7 years behind bars compared to 7.4 years for white inmates, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Black people are three times more likely to be wrongfully accused of sexual assault in America than white people.
“I have learned you must keep your faith even in a system that has failed you,” Bellamy says of working on the play. “Although, the justice system is supposed to serve you, it’s crucial to share experiences whether good, bad or indifferent. When we share truths we create a path for change. . . . Being black in America is being black in America, so take the good, and whatever else happens, never give up fighting for justice.”
“The themes of the story have not been altered one bit by the passage of time, sadly,” adds Big Dawg artistic director Steve Vernon.
Every exoneree’s word, action and insight is borne of real-life experiences. Despite the hard-wrought sentences they endure, bits of levity still make their way into the show.
“I love that the script is full of grace, humor and moments of truly uplifting messages, despite how easily it could forgo those qualities,” Vernon says. “It is so well-constructed.”
The disparity between truth and what the justice system deemed runs fast and furious through every line. Some handle it with more poise than others, such as Sonia (Sunny) Jacobs, played by Lupin Byers. She was falsely convicted of murdering two police officers in 1976, something squarely landing on her shoulders by proxy of the company she kept.
“Sunny naively assumes the truth will come out over the course of her trial,” Byers tells. “Because she did not commit the murders, she believes she will be found innocent and released. But that’s not how it works.”
Byers exhibits Sunny’s will to survive not only physically but spiritually and emotionally. She does not allow the justice system to control her mind, so she centralizes her character’s focus on her inner being.
“Using yoga, prayer and meditation as her tools Sunny survives five years in solitary confinement during her death sentence,” Byers says. “Her sentence was eventually commuted to ‘life’ but another 12 years would pass before she was exonerated.”
Anger and resentment are natural go-to feelings for anyone robbed of their life: parents die during their sentences, children grow up, and in Sunny’s case, her husband is executed for the same crime he, too, didn’t commit. But finding peace and joy in merely living, even when everything is stacked against her, shows real power of character.
“Studying Sunny in preparation for this role has been an incredible crash course in the reality that, while we don’t always have control of our circumstances, we can (with effort and focus) choose how we respond,” Byers says.
Charles Auten, who plays Kerry Max Cook, says the show is heartwrenching to watch. Mainly, it’s hard to qualify that things are the same, even today. ”All five men and of course Sunny were all railroaded by a corrupt and broken criminal justice system that, rather than seek evidence to find a suspect, they chose suspects and made the evidence fit,” Auten explains. “All of them are lucky to be alive, telling their stories.”
Donna Troy is handling set design for “The Exonerated,” and Robb Mann is doing lighting, with Stephanie Scheu Aman behind costuming. “The Exonerated” opens Wednesday night, with pay-what-you-can admission for one night only.