Death row stories from those who still live

Play has moved many people -- including an Illinois governor

Theater

November 09, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

It was totally a lightbulb moment."

Jessica Blank is talking about the genesis of The Exonerated, the hit off-Broadway play about freed death-row inmates, which she co-wrote with Erik Jensen.

The moment came during a conference on the death penalty at Columbia University in February 2000. Briefly -- before prison authorities cut the call off -- Blank and Jensen listened to a broadcast phone call from a prisoner on death row in Illinois.

After the call ended, she continues, "I was crying. Erik was crying. Everyone in the room was crying. It was really moving in a different way from the hour and a half of education we had gotten." By the time they left that room, Blank and Jensen -- a pair of New York actors who had never written a full-length play -- knew they would create a script about exonerated death-row prisoners.

A documentary drama presented as a staged reading, The Exonerated opened in New York in October 2002 and has attracted celebrity casts there and on the road. It arrives at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre Tuesday with a cast of 10 headed by Lynn Redgrave and Robert Carradine.

The Exonerated changed the lives of Blank and Jensen, who were married in the summer of 2001. The play has eased the lives of the six former inmates whose stories it tells and who share in the profits. And it may have influenced the January decision of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute the sentences of every Illinois death-row inmate to life in prison.

All of this started with what was essentially a date, albeit not a conventionally romantic one. Blank and Jensen, who were then both in their late 20s, had recently begun seeing each other when she asked him to accompany her to the conference at Columbia. "When you first start dating someone you say, 'Yes' to anything. I didn't think it was a strange request," says Jensen.

Husband and wife are relating this story from opposite sides of the country. Struggling artists when they met, they are now "bi-coastal" -- he's currently in California, where he has a recurring role as a prosecutor on CSI, and she's in New York, working on various projects, including a book about the making of The Exonerated (which she's writing with Jensen) and a TV movie about wrongful convictions, which she's co-producing with Jensen and Exonerated director Bob Balaban.

Back at that Columbia conference, they sat at neighboring desks, sharing a laptop computer. As soon as the phone call from the Illinois inmate was over, they began typing messages to each other. "Passing notes in class" is what Jensen calls it.

"We were ... elbowing each other out of the way. It was pretty tremendous," he says. "It was an epiphany day."

"We both thought: Theater," says Blank. "We're both actors and so we knew something about how theater, when you do it right, can make your audiences identify powerfully and on a human level with people whose stories are very different from your own."

Took to the road

They spent the next few months doing research and writing a proposal, which led to an offer of the use of the 45 Bleecker Theatre for three nights in the fall. Now they needed to meet their subjects. At the time, Blank says, there were 89 exonerated death-row inmates. She and Jensen reached about 40 by phone, then narrowed the list to 20 they chose to visit in person.

"We called our journalist friends and asked them how to conduct interviews. We called our playwright friends and asked them how to write plays. We called our arts-administration friends and asked them how to raise money," says Blank.

Even so, money was a major obstacle for the pair, who embarked on three extensive road trips to conduct interviews in summer 2000. "It was a lot of sleeping in the car," says Jensen.

"A lot of the time we didn't even stop and sleep," Blank recalls. "We would just trade off driving and sleeping and drive through the night. We would do an interview for four hours, come out totally wrecked, our minds completely blown, having heard one of the most extraordinary stories we'd ever heard, drive 11 hours straight just in time to show up at the home of the next person we'd set up an interview with. It just went on like that."

Although they prepared a list of 250 interview questions, they ended up using very few. "Basically we went in and asked people to tell us their stories. And then from there, we tried to ask very tangible questions, like, 'What did you dream about when you were in prison? What did you eat? Describe your cell to us. Tell us the story of the day you got out. Who got you out and how do you feel about them?' We asked most people what they would change about the system if they could," says Blank.

Eyes opened

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