A movie. A play. A stroll in the park. These seem like obvious date choices after only one month of knowing a new lover. But a sojourn to a Columbia University conference on the flaws of the U.S. penal system? While that might seem daunting for some couples, that's where New York actors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen found themselves in the winter of 2000, listening to disturbing information about death-row prisoners who had been convicted falsely, nearly executed, and then set free.
"The argument over the death penalty usually consists of two extremes polarized in the moral debate, so there isn't any real conversation that can happen," said Blank during a recent phone interview. "But this issue of innocence is quite different. No one believes an innocent person should die."
The couple soon developed a proposal to write the play The Exonerated, and it gained local support. They traveled the country, interviewing more than 40 ex-death-row-prisoners from all walks of life, often with two things in common: poverty and salacious media coverage before their trials. Their stories were harrowing. One man was falsely accused of killing his parents and had to mourn their deaths from death row; one woman was wrongly convicted, along with her husband, of killing two police officers -- and though she was eventually freed, her husband had been electrocuted two years earlier.
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"When we started out, we expected everyone we met would be depressed, pissed, angry -- and rightfully so," says Blank. "We were surprised to find this wasn't the case. Certainly they all carry scars. But [many of them felt that] if they had internalized all of the hurt and anger, they'd be dead already. Many of them had had spiritual awakenings. We came out feeling really inspired."
The writing duo crafted a full-length play out of six of these stories, using verbatim excerpts from interviews, courtroom transcripts, and other public documents. The show was an unexpected success, and has since featured (in various locales) all sorts of Hollywood bigwigs. The touring show about to open at the Curran stars Montel Williams, Brian Dennehy, and Aidan Quinn, among others. To Blank (who's still with Jensen), the star power behind The Exonerated is nice, but it's not the issue. She's hoping to get a message to the masses. "When theater is done right, it can make audience members identify with and care about problems that are very different from their own," she says. "There are egregious human rights violations [in our judicial system]. I think we have an opportunity to fix those and it's important that we do."