Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
By SHERWIN MACKINTOSH
Gainesville Sun theater critic
"Powerful" is a word not often used to describe a college theatrical performance. But the latest production of the University of Florida School of Theatre and Dance, "The Exonerated," stands as one of the most powerful, thought-provoking encounters you will ever have in the theater.
It is an exhilarating, illuminating and mesmerizing experience.
Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interviewed 40 real-life death row inmates and selected six stories that were originally presented at the Los Angeles Actors' Gang Theater production of "The Exonerated" under the artistic direction of Tim Robbins in 2002. It later played Off Broadway and has reached notable audience members from former Attorney General Janet Reno to Supreme Court Justice David Souter, as well as several members of the Justice Department.
"The Exonerated" is the weaving of these six condemned lives; eventually, all were found to be innocent, with some of them serving as long as 22 years, just steps away from the electric chair.
With an evocative parallel to reality television, the play could be interpreted as a bit political at times, but the true-life experiences of people who were wrongly accused provoke some honest questions and some time for true contemplation about our justice system.
"I'll give you a moment just to reflect," character Sunny Jacobs says of her years of incarceration. "From 1979 to 1992, just remove that entire chunk from your life."
Yet she goes on, oddly enough, to try and make sense of her imprisonment and to see the rest of her life as a "living memorial" and an affirmation of her existence.
Director and UF Assistant Professor Yanci Bukovec has taken some wonderful liberties in staging this production, using various multimedia elements to bring each story to life. He is brilliant in his use of scrims, sound and video to illuminate each character, and he is supported by a flawless production team. Originally staged as a concert reading, Bukovec's production takes us beyond the traditional proscenium arch, allowing us to inhabit each nightmare.
This is riveting theater with a perfect ensemble cast, featuring outstanding performances by Nadir Mateen, Chris Aruffo, Matthew Lindsay, Judd Johnson, Marty Austin Lamar and Karen Kullman.
One will be lucky to obtain a ticket to "The Exonerated," as word of mouth had this opening weekend performance already sold out. For 90 minutes, with no intermission, the audience was held prisoner, with no one even thinking about leaving the theater. With no fanfare or flashy ending to prompt them, the audience was quick with a standing ovation.
This is an important play and one that demands attention. Dramaturge Denis McCourt quotes co-playwright Blank in his program notes: "Although 'The Exonerated' is based on real people, it is really a story about all of humanity and the prospect of our freedoms being removed by these 'systems' we've created to protect ourselves . . ."
Now that's powerful.
Sherwin Mackintosh spent 17 years as a musical director and producer in New York City. He is currently the director of the Performing Arts Center at the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School.