Theatre: The Exonerated

By Janus Santos and Mardi Grivas

“How can one find strength when their freedom is taken?”

On the 22nd of May, TAT Legal were fortunate enough to be invited to a sold out performance of The Sol III Company’s The Exonerated in one of Melbourne’s premiere venue for the arts and versatile contemporary spaces, Chapel Off Chapel.

Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, and originally presented by the Culture Project in New York, The Exonerated is based on six true stories of survivors of death row. The characters of the play give an unapologetic voice to the people who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. Each story, carefully chosen to show the universal experience of human suffering.  However, the story is so much more than a powerful portrayal of each character’s demoralizing incarceration, but acts as a poignant view of the human spirit, and finding peace, absolution and light in the darkest of times.

Australian Director Andrei Schiller-Chan takes the audience on an emotional and riveting journey, drawing parallels between what people endure in any kind of prison, and on the edge of death. Though set in American culture, The Exonerated has never been more relevant to Australian audiences, given the recent executions of the Australian Bali Nine ringleaders in Indonesia.

In a sense, the play also provokes a fresh understanding of the experience by refugees in Australian detention centres.

The Exonerated is inspirational and intense. Strong delivery, honest voices, an excellent contrast of characters, and a profound didactic quality to the drama.

The stagecraft itself draws and invites the audience into their grim lives. We are introduced to a run-down 1970’s style home with the powerful and stirring Garikai Jani, as Delbert Tibbs, despairingly sweeping the floor. This flawlessly builds context to the overarching theme of African-American oppression in an era of heightened prejudice, violence and failures of the criminal justice system.

One line he says that continues to resonate is “…It doesn’t have anything to do with one’s intelligence, it has to do with one’s preconceptions, with one’s tendencies and how one looks at other human beings”. To quote Andrei Schiller-Chan ‘if you can look inside yourself, and free yourself from ignorance and judgement, then I think you can truly see the light in another human being.’

Other stand out performances of the night was Karla Hillam’s gentle, moving and heartfelt depiction of Sunny Jacobs, and Noray Muhammed’s authentic and endearing rendition.

The Exonerated ends on a hopeful light – how even the most abused human beings can let go of their anger, the hatred and the bitterness, and find forgiveness in themselves.

From start to finish, The Exonerated is a rollercoaster of emotions. Sharp exhales, laughter, goose bumps and sheer shock. It will leave you reflecting for days.

The Exonerated is playing in Prahran’s Chapel Off Chapeluntil 7 June. Company proceeds are donated to Innocence International and Liberation Prison Yoga.