Guilford group tackles life and death issues

by Amy Kingsley

The set for ‘“The Exonerated’” is ten chairs on a bare floor, six in a semicircle in front and two pairs upstage. The cast enters in total darkness and they do not exit for the entire two-hour run. During that time, the audience is taken to a place that few people leave alive ‘– Death Row.

Six of the characters are people who have. The play, by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, is more than their story; it is their words. Blank and Jensen conducted interviews with about 60 people who were convicted, sentenced to death and exonerated. They based the play on six, and almost every one of the actors’ utterances comes either from those conversations or the public record.

Revelers Theatre, a group of Guilford College students and staff, produce, act and direct the play. Audience members drop dollars into a bucket earmarked for the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice instead of paying for a ticket. The play offers little in the way of production values; there are no sets, stunning costumes or lighting effects.

‘“Job is one of my favorite Biblical characters,’” says Delbert Tibbs, played by James Shields. ‘“For obvious reasons.’”

The characters alternately rise from their chairs to tell their own stories of persecution and endurance. Each story is unique, but they share some jaw-dropping commonalities: prosecutorial misconduct, race baiting and interminable waiting for the creaky wheels of justice.

‘“The state of Texas executed me over a thousand times,’” says Kerry Max Cook, played by Drew Dupont. The prosecutor portrayed Cook as a homosexual maniac who hated women, a reputation that preceded the man to death row and sealed his fate for the next 22 years. Onstage, he talks about the scars all over his body from numerous sexual assaults he suffered in prison.

‘“Prison took away that spark for life,’” says David Keaton, who is played by Charles Mosley. ‘“Smiling is something people round here don’t see me do too much. I do some things. I drink, smoke weed, do cocaine to crack cocaine. The perfect day to me is just to get plastered.’”

The audience is dead silent as characters list the things they lost on death row: years, sanity, a brother and a husband. Sunny Jacobs, played by Caitlin Allen, sat on death row from 1976 to 1992 after a shady plea bargain framed her and her husband in the shooting deaths of two highway patrolmen. The real killer confessed in a letter in 1979, 11 years before her common-law husband died in the electric chair.

‘“At some point you’ve just got to let the character take over,’” Shields says about preparing to play the eloquent Tibbs. ‘“I don’t think this guy will let go for a couple more days.’”

After the Sunday matinee, former North Carolina death row inmate Alan Gell takes the stage to tell his own tale of mercy. Dressed in an unassuming red button-down shirt and khaki corduroys, he tells a story similar to the six the audience has already heard and the dozens more they probably haven’t. Gell was the 113th convict exonerated from death row in the United States.

‘“I’m Alan Gell, but I’m number 113 too,’” he said. ‘“I just met 121 the other day. I have to ask: Why are there 121? Why at number one didn’t we stop?’”

This play, which has played across the country and has been made into a movie starring Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon and others, is also an effort to raise awareness of the flawed criminal justice system.

‘“We all know the statistics,’” Shields says. ‘“But when you hear the story it makes a difference. The hope is that by actually hearing the stories, people are motivated to act.’”

Jacobs, who entered prison as a wife, daughter and mother, and exited 16 years later a widow, orphan and grandmother, is one former inmate who expresses hope for a silver lining.

‘“I want people to say, ‘I heard about this little woman person and she didn’t let them crush her,”” Jacobs says. ‘“’She didn’t let them destroy her. And if she can do it, then I can do it.””

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at