Photo by Steve Wagner
The Exonerated at the Beck Center
Sometimes events in the real world inflict serious damage on "issue plays" that once carried a powerful punch. When The Exonerated (now at Beck Center) first opened 20 years ago, playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen had assembled a unique and compelling drama built around six true cases of innocent people—three white, three black, all poor—who had been convicted of murder. They were each eventually exonerated for various reasons but were forever marked by the abuses heaped upon them by the American justice system.
The playwrights, married and white, had every good intention with this play. And indeed, it was a piece of theater that played well, even up until two years ago. But since then Blank, Jensen and all of us have experienced the tragedy of George Floyd, which belatedly opened many eyes, particularly those of white people, to the reality of Black and other minority groups whose members are far too frequently killed by those in authority prior to any formal legal proceedings.
Given that new environment, some might look at a simple play about six people who were falsely accused but eventually released as missing the bigger point when compared to the fates of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. Those individuals were not afforded the courtesy of being charged with a crime, let alone possible future exoneration.
The challenge for the ten-person Beck cast, under the sure-handed direction of Colleen Longshaw Jackson, is to bring those stories to life and relevance in this much different world. And the fact that they sometimes succeed is a testament to their skill.
The Exonerated is a play so stark and direct that it has been successfully performed by actors sitting on stools and reading their parts off scripts. Little theatrical frou-frou is needed when the drama is inherent in each of the stories, which involve people yanked out of their lives and accused of horrendous crimes. It's like a six-course serving of Dateline, minus the dulcet tones of narrator Keith Morrison.
There is no narrator binding these elements together in The Exonerated, and that helps keep it all raw and immediate. Director Jackson tries to animate the essentially static material, moving the six victims and four ensemble performers around the stage which has over a dozen chairs, stools and one exercise mat.
The intent to energize the proceedings is admirable, but it sometimes undercuts the power of the words. In a play where we are not able to follow the full dramatic arc of any of the six "exonerated," any diversion from the words of themselves or their tormentors—including extraneous hand gestures employed by a couple of the actors—seems like an unwanted distraction.
On top of that, during recent years true crime stories have become exceedingly popular in the culture, with consumers of TV and podcast serials lapping up all the granular details they can find. But since these six true stories must be told within the 90-minute run time of the play, each tale is edited down to just the basic facts. And that at times feels a bit threadbare.
The six hapless targets of warped justice are played by Stuart Hoffman, Amy Fritsche, Greg White, Isaiah Betts, Remell Bowens and Abraham Adams. Various other roles including cops, judges and spouses of the victims are handled by Andrea Belser, Samantha Cocco, Keith Kornajcik, and John Polk.
All the cast members acquit (ahem) themselves well. And the staging is properly stripped down to reflect the seriousness of the subject matter.
That said, perhaps it's time for Bland and Jensen to write a new play about those who were cut down before a trial and sentencing. It will have to be titled The Exterminated. And to fully realize the extent of that ongoing injustice, the run time of the production will be days on end.
Through November 7 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, beckcenter.org, 216-521-2540.