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Theater review: Reexamining 'The Exonerated’

Celebrities lend voices to the wrongly imprisoned a decade after their play debuted at Culture Project.

It's been 10 years since collaborators Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen introduced the world to "The Exonerated" at NYC's Culture Project. The play explores the stories of six people who were imprisoned and sentenced to death for crimes that it later turned out they did not commit. The stories are told in the exact words of those exonerated, with quotes taken from interviews, transcripts and other official documentation. But it's not a dark show, Jensen assures us: "It is hopeful -- optimistic even. Jess and I were changed meeting all these people who had been on death row for two to 22 years and were released amidst overwhelming evidence of their innocence. Seeing that they came out the other side ... is inspiring."

To celebrate the 10th anniversary, Culture Project paired with such advocates as the NYCLU and Amnesty International to put on five weeks of staged readings by the likes of Stockard Channing, Martin Short and Brooke Shields. Some evenings, Kerry Max Cook and Sunny Jacobs, two of the featured exonerated, speak as themselves. "I think that Sunny sees her participation as a gentle revenge for the wrongs committed against her," Jensen says. "[But] we are all 'victims' of this. The toll that injustice ... takes on society is great. And the real offenders, in many of these cases, are still out there."

Adding to the conversation

To further the message about ongoing kinks in the U.S. criminal justice system, the show is slated to run with talk-backs on such prison issues as race conflict and solitary confinement. And if you happen to leave the theater wanting to get more involved? “Register to vote,” says Jensen. “A lot of judges are appointed by the president. Wrongful conviction can happen to anyone — and an enlightened, nonideological judiciary interested in justice … is essential for our civil society.”

 
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