BOSTON — Suffolk University’s Performing Arts Office recently presented its Pioneer Performance Series, The Exonerated, which brought to life the tragedy of innocent inmates on death row.
As the play began, lights came up upon the entire cast sitting in chairs upon a multitude of levels on stage. The play went on to follow the story of six people–Kerry Max Cook, Gary Gauger, Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs, David Keaton, Delbert Tibbs and Robert Earl Hayes—all who were wrongly convicted of capital murderer charges and sentenced to death row.
In 2000, the authors of the play, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, attended an anti-death penalty conference at Columbia University. It was this experience that led them to write The Exonerated. They interviewed sixty people from different backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, locations, and religions. But all had spent time on death row, and all were innocent.
The Exonerated, directed by Kristen Baker, featured the talents of Suffolk students and faculty alike. The main characters were played by Gustave Cadet, Sharif Butler, Clarence Flanders, and Brian Kerry, all students at Suffolk, as well as Jeremy Solomon and Vicki Karns, both members of the Suffolk University faculty. The integration of the students and teachers aided the show in its message, as it brought a variety of backgrounds and experiences to the cast.
The play is presented through the six stories, all in chronological order. The entire stage was black, and it went through its 90 minutes without the curtains closing, without any scenery changes, and without any of the cast leaving the stage. It really focused on the voices of the condemned.
Thursday evening’s performance was followed by a post discussion with lawyer Lisa Aidlin and Suffolk Law School Professor, Michael Avery, who shared their own stores and field questions.
Aidlin, who is currently working to exonerate a death row inmate in Alabama, spoke of the difficulties in moving that case forward. At this point, her client is willing to settle for life in prison. “All he’s ever said to me was that he wants to be off death row,” said Aidlin.
Avery, who deals in Constitutional Law, Individual Rights, Evidence, Scientific Evidence according to his Suffolk Law School biography, shared his experience working with Joe Salvati and Peter Limone who were framed for murder by the FBI in the 1970’s and only recently were released from prison after nearly three decades behind bars. Two other wrongly convicted men in the case died in prison before they could be exonerated.
Prior to the performance, two real life exonerates came to Suffolk. Dennis Maher and Bernard Baran told their stories in the C. Walsh Theater. They offered deep insight into the life and minds of a prison inmate who had no business being locked up in the first place. Dennis Maher spent nineteen years in prison after being wrongfully convicted on three charges of rape, two of them in Lowell, Massachusetts, and one in Ayer, Massachusetts.
The Performing Arts Office’s 2008 Pioneer Performance Series really went above and beyond expectations this year. It not only put on a production, but really helped to raise awareness about a serious issue. Director Kristen Baker noted that the cast and crew were aware and in awe of the responsibility that came with presenting the play. “We owe it to the actual people we are portraying; we owe it to the hundreds who have similar stories, and the thousands who stories haven’t ended yet,” said Baker. “We hope we did them justice.”