Behind Bars: Writing The Exonerated

By Jordan Nickels | In 2005, The Exonerated helped opened the Stage III series at Florida Studio Theatre, as a part of our commitment to producing contemporary work that challenges our audience. What better play to reintroduce Stage III this year, than a play about the corruption in our American penal system and innocence of many death row inmates. But when did this play come to fruition?

“How a couple of New York actors who’d been dating for a month and had no previous contact with the legal system threw our dog in the back of a rental car, went on the road, crisscrossed the country meeting former death row inmates with the most extraordinary stories we’d ever heard–and came out the other side married actor/playwrights with an entirely new take on the American criminal justice system, and on how incredibly resilient the human spirit can be.”

– Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, The Gothamist, 4/11/2015

In the summer of 2000, actors and playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen got in their car and traveled across the United states to interview over 40 former death row inmates that have been released by the state. They met people from many different walks of life and their stories culminated into a play titled The Exonerated.

“The people we met were from all walks of life. Different races, different genders, different educational backgrounds, different religions, different histories. Some of them were from small towns and some of them were from big cities. Some of them hadn’t made it past junior high and others had graduate degrees. Some had never even gotten a speeding ticket and others had minor criminal records (though none of them, upon arrest in these cases, had records involving crimes even approaching the seriousness of capital murder).”

– Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, The Gothamist, 4/11/2015

The Exonerated is based on the interviews of six of these death row inmates that were released from prison, some after almost 22 years. The play opened Off-Broadway in 2002 and ran for two years, even spawning a revival in 2012. These productions spawned a film in 2005 which included cameos the original exonerees interviewed. Many actors have been attached to The Exonerated including Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Glover, Stockard Channing, Brooke Shields, and Susan Sarandon.

In December 2002, the play was performed in Chicago for former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who at the time was facing numerous complaints about the state’s penal system. Along with commuting four men who he believed innocent, on January 11, 2003, he communicated the death sentences of 167 death row inmates to life imprisonment, allowing them time to appeal their convictions. Both Blank and Jensen say this is one of their greatest accomplishments from The Exonerated:

“The other most rewarding moment was in January 2003, when, on our way up the Pacific coast in a car, we heard that Governor Ryan had decided to commute the sentences of everyone on Illinois’ death row before leaving office. All the death sentences were changed to life without parole, so that those with a convincing claim of innocence would have the chance to appeal. While Governor Ryan listened to many, many people during the course of his decision-making process, many with much more expertise than us, we knew that he had seen our play while he was making up his mind. It was an incredible honor just to be part of the conversation.”

– Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, The Gothamist, 4/11/2015

The Exonerated adapted by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen will play from April 19, 2017 – April 23, 2017 in the Keating Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here: 

Read more of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s interview with The Gothamist:

More about Governor Ryan’s communication of death row inmates:

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