It’s not hard to find the numbers, and they all come to the same chilling conclusion: Every year, the United States wrongly incarcerates—and, in some states, executes—a shocking number of innocent people. A recent University of Michigan Law School study found that in 2015 alone, a record 149 people were exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit, some after serving nearly 15 years in prison.
It’s the reason The Innocence Project, the nonprofit organization founded in 1992 to fight for the wrongly convicted, never lacks a full docket of cases. And it’s the reason Meghan Randolph, executive director of Music Theatre of Madison, has formed a new ad hoc theater company called The Voices Theatre Project.
Beginning April 8, The Voices will offer four free performances of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play “The Exonerated,” with audience donations to benefit the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
“I’ve wanted to do this play for many years, and I decided that now is the time,” says Randolph. “What I know how to do is stage theater and tell stories, and this is a way to tell some pretty important ones.”
The six stories that make up “The Exonerated” cover the gamut of the wrongly convicted in America by focusing on three African-American men, one woman and two white men. They’re all told in the actual words of the exonerees. Eight additional actors play peripheral roles—police officers, lawyers, spouses and friends. The stories illustrate the ways in which our criminal justice system falls prey to everything from racism and classism to the need to convict a perpetrator.
For example, Jalen Thomas, fresh off a powerful performance in Madison Theatre Guild’s “The Whipping Man,” plays a scholar convicted of a murder when he wasn’t in the state where and when the crime occurred. James Aehl plays an Illinois farmer browbeaten into confessing to the murders of his elderly parents after 15 straight hours of interrogation. Stephanie Monday plays a woman, wrongly convicted of killing a police officer, who was left in prison for 13 years after the actual killer confessed.
The show will be staged the same way it was when it was originally performed off-Broadway, with the actors reading their characters’ stories from books they hold in their hands.
“It’s all word for word,” says Randolph. “It works better when we pay homage to their stories this way. We’re literally sharing what happened to them.”
Randolph isn’t sure where she’ll take The Voices Theatre Project after this particular show. She’s aware of how crowded the local theater scene already is and has Music Theatre of Madison to manage as well. It may actually come down to material.
“The point is giving voice to people who have no voice,” she says. “Finding the plays that fit that bill is challenging.”
Performances of “The Exonerated” are set for April 8 and 9 at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center on Jenifer Street and April 21 and 22 at the University of Wisconsin Law School on Bascom Hill. You can reserve free seats at www.voicestheatre.com.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning blog Stage Write for madisonmagazine.com.
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