Matthew Paris :: Xiccarph :: View topic - The Exonerated
The Exonerated
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Matthew Paris

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Post Sat Jan 24, 2004 4:23 pm - The Exonerated
I saw the Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen at the Bleecker Theatre on May 16th, a huge sort of airplane hanger of a theatre at 45 Bleecker Street. The Exonerated is still running and hopes to be up at least through November of this year. I think it might go on for years. Itís very hard now to get tickets for it.
There are good reasons why. It is a stellar political event. It had been done by celebrities in Los Angeles under Tim Robbins, it has played in Boston as well. It has inspired famous actors and producers to work for nothing in our city to promote it. The actors have a book but they know the lines and move around with exquisitely minimal blocking on a bare stage beautifully with uncommonly expressive grace.
Directly smoothly by Bob Balaban, better known as a movie producer, who was also there on stage as a cameo performer the night I attended, I saw Richard Dreyfuss and Jill Clayburgh among other stars act the parts in this main action of six wrongfully convicted Americans locked up for a good part of their lives and almost killed by the justice system. As compelling as Dreyfuss and Clayburgh were, everybody in the cast touched the heart.
There was nothing about this material that was make believe. We were watching as much as possible the very words if not the faces of people who had been deprived of their rights and almost executed as Kafka says in The Trial ďlike a dogĒ much as Jews were slain systematically in the late 1940s Holocaust.
As one who has been long an advocate to this cause when it was unpopular and unknown in the middle classes if all too familiar to millions of the American poor, I was personally happy to see theatre which is a part of a moral political movement in this country to stop the depredations of our rabid and incompetent criminal prosecutors and the billion dollar business behind them from causing such irreparable and egregious damage to us.
The Exonerated isnít a play; itís a theatrical event of a much more radical structural nature than its models in the past like The Adding Machine, Winterset, Bury The Dead, Inherit the Wind, and similarly issue- focused movies like I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (which the real life stories in The Exonerated resemble), JFK and Bowling For Columbine.
This presentation certainly has gotten great reviews from the papers, all sorts of prestigious awards. It deserves it; rather more intriguingly it is theatre that reflects a social groundswell of indignation among our moralists and parrots in this country about the terrible things a justice system that is constitutionally illegal, out of control and a murderous churning engine of the dollar devouring huge prison business is doing to us.

This is a very heart wrenching experience; the fourth wall of the stage vanishes in many ways for its audience. One takes intimately the words of real people whose lives have been ruined and devastated by our legal institutions; in fact these six martyrs were almost killed. The ones that were murdered legally werenít around to talk to us. I got to speak afterwards with Balaban, some of the real victims and Jill Clayburgh. This is one dedicated bunch. In America you know you are in serious company when you meet people who are working hard sacrificing their time to do things like this for nothing.
The Exonerated is a mix of six similar stories of how Americans were lost several years and even decades of their lives while they were arrested, locked up, convicted by ďcorrobsĒ of lying witnesses who for their mendacity were able to do only a little time or walk. The script is taken down word for word from transcripts of testimony giving to the playwrights by the victims of our wonderful courts.
Afterwards one is moved not only the actors talking about the play but the real martyrs to a juggernaut hungry for social prey who are also in the theatre watching, after being treated like insane and evil curs, their words and themselves being played by celebrities. The work blurs the lines between theatre and truth; it isnít making anything up. The tales are similar enough to constitute a main action, developed, denominate and resolution such has we find in fictional drama. Blank and Jensen have done flawless work. One is never preached to,. One is never bored.
We watch what is essentially a staged reading with no props by some very gifted actors; yet it is astonishing how immediately we are swept into the real lives of people who have been stripped of any franchise, humiliated, threaten, sometimes raped, almost killed, caged like wild animals with desperate peers over years, yet have with all their despairs and stark fear not coarsened and become brutes themselves like their pious captors from such horrendous seasons in their mortality.
One isnít made angry by this play; one is brought close to the heroism of common people whom the whole country had abandoned like cockroaches in their dilemmas who had to face their wretched situations shunned, scorned and dismissed as human beings by their nation thinking themselves good folk though hey had committed no crime.
They were in their pain treated as unreal by a whole country who for many years has not willing to ask any honest and fearless questions about our terminally poisoned court system. We are if we have been silent no better than the Germans who commonly never wondered where all those neighbors who had once been citizens of the Third Reich had disappeared to. After see The Exonerated nobody can say: I never knew it happened.
I would strongly suggest to anyone who reads this and is a patriot to go to this play, meditate on its heartbreaking truths, then take in the web sites about it, then perhaps even go to a video store and borrow The Hurricane about the irrepressible genius Rubin Carter, maybe even read Carterís great literary piece of ghoulishly comic Americana, The Sixteenth Round.
As Thomas Jefferson once said about slavery, even if we are immoral and unjust we canít afford to live in the long term with the furies that social injustice of this masse kind invokes in those it injures.

Then you might ask yourself with all the candidates one ca see on television running for President nobody says a word about our grey penitentiary tyrants and killers with law and a badge and what they do to our neighbors. The answer is: the victims of our vast industry of lock ups are denied the vote even after they walk.
If one is thinking differently, one might ponder what taxes from oneís pocket are going into a machina that uses paradoxically the Fourteenth Amendment to bring back slavery, turns back the Civil Rights movement of the 50s, ushers in a new iron clad two tiered society. Do we want to live in an America as it was before Abolition and Suffrage in which one class can't vote?
Do we feel we personally we are elusive and can evade an expanding net of rigged judgments, false ďcorrobsĒ, plea bargaining, settling of cases by court appointed lawyers in a latrine in as long a time as it takes to dehydrate a little, oneís fate pondered over a few seconds by twerps of out law school who canít remember oneís name with the volume of cases as the law of our land?
Are we happy with lack of legal protection in our system from the slammer or legal death unless we have the right friends from anything from piously lawful incarceration to equally legal lynching? Of course if one has powerful allies, a nice suit and an expensive lawyer as these people in this play didnít itís a different story.
I donít want to suggest that The Exonerated is a polemic. It isnít. Iím the one whoís sermonizing here about two tiered injustice; they donít. The Exonerated is a wrenching and sorrowful real life drama about common people and how they deal with loss, being legally muscled and almost killed. Thereís no fury in it, only at most sorrow for lost mortality.
One aspect of this common experience I was not aware of was how the justice system hangs onto its prey like a tiger fleeing through the jungle from its enemies while carrying a stay tapir in its jaws. Even after the convictions of these people were overturned the law wouldnít let them out of prison, sometimes for years after they had been declared innocent.
We havenít had theatre like this in a long time. One thinks of The Connection, Fortune and Menís Eyes but they were fiction. If you think theatre these days has to be and is always a tourist visit to a museum, a whimsical look at the bones of dinosaurs or some fetid trash that belongs in hell or on daytime television, you out to go to see this play.
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