The Exonerated at The Gate Theatre
When the lights go down in the orchestra of the Gate Theatre, a single spotlight illuminates the stage. A lone man looks up at the audience and begins to tell his story.
His character is the first of six to come forward and recount the events that led each of them to be wrongfully convicted in American courts, condemned to death row, and then released years later when their convictions were finally overturned.
They are not easy stories to tell. They provide accounts of the brutal impact the flawed American justice system can have when it fails the people it is supposed to protect. And because all of the stories are true.
The six narratives woven together in Exonerated were pulled from interviews, letters and the transcripts of court proceedings. Together, they paint a picture of some of the most glaring issues crippling American justice today, from the legal discrimination of black Americans to the oppression of those who lack the financial resources to make the system work for them. When it comes to justice, one character says, “You get what you pay for.”
Each of the convictions was eventually overturned, but not before leaving deep physical and emotional scars on the innocent and their families.
The delicate staging of the exploration of these issues elevates the words of the wrongfully convicted. The characters are given the space and time to tell the stories they need to tell in spotlighted soliloquies that comprise the majority of the play’s ninety minutes. The action is secondary to these words, portrayed as flashbacks behind gauzy black curtains lit with low blue lights, thereby underscoring the gravity of the monologues delivered centre stage, urging the audience to truly listen.
This production of Exonerated showcases the notable talent of its cast. Only two of the principal cast members had any acting experience before taking on these roles, but each of them portrays their characters with grace, honesty and vulnerability. Tony Richards commands the part of Delbert Tibbs with an assuredness that seems to contradict his newness to acting, as he is an engineer and businessman and this is his first time onstage. Yet his grounded presence fills the theatre.
Richards plays Delbert Tibbs, a black man caught up in unjust court proceedings who faced the death penalty despite not matching the description from the eyewitness and having an alibi when he faced the all-white jury.
Richards said he felt a personal attachment to the role. “Being an African American in America, I have been stopped, and incarcerated, for stuff I didn’t do. Small stuff, but the thing about it is, in America you can be put into this system even if you really had nothing to do with it. A lot of it has to do with the colour of your skin.”
Stephan Turner, the play’s director, recognises that putting on a play about American legal issues in Thailand may have less relevance to the people living here, but says that Exonerated’s themes can transcend culture. “Because of the severity of the punishment, I think it’s an issue that most people can understand. … I think this will play to [my audience] and they’ll be able to understand and empathise.”
For most of the play, the only set pieces are simple chairs upon which the characters sit in different arrangements. The one location that is marked by distinctive set decoration is the courthouse, where an American flag boldly hangs. This display of patriotism juxtaposes the iniquity that unfolds below it.
This play serves as a reminder that justice in the United States requires constant vigilance. As Richards says, “The American justice system has flaws. There are people who are innocent that have spent a lot of time behind bars and are still spending time behind bars.”
There is a distinct takeaway that Richards hopes to give audiences: “People need to ask questions. Don’t just accept that the justice system is always fair. That’s what I hope people get out of this. To ask questions, and to make sure that if you don’t step up and say something, then this stuff will continue to happen.”
For Turner, directing this play has given him an opportunity to urge his audience to seriously question capital punishment. He says, “Human life is the most precious gift in the world. We can’t take it away. The death penalty never solved anything. It never solved anything. The person who takes a life, you will not gain a life by eliminating that person. So what’s the use?”
Catch The Exonerated at the Chiang Mai Gate Theatre, found on the 7th Floor Studio Theatre, Central Kad Suan Kaew (From the entrance on the ground floor of the Kad Suan Kaew mall, turn left and take the lift to the seventh floor).
March 9, 10 & 11 at 7pm
March 12 at 2pm.
300 baht in advance, 350 baht on the door.
Photo credit by Ortal Liora Isaac