Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s 2002 play The Exonerated recounts the experiences of six death row prisoners found to have been wrongfully convicted. The stories are horrifying, depicting both the miscarriages of justice and the damage done to the survivors by periods of extended incarceration.
In many ways, the dark and intimate space of Hope Mill should provide an ideal setting to stage this work. However, director Joseph Houston’s reworking of the play as a Netflix-style true crime documentary arguably sacrifices audience engagement for artistic invention.
Most of the prisoners’ personal narratives are relayed by actors on screens through pre-recorded footage. At regular intervals, scenes from their stories – which include flashbacks to events and court cases – are enacted in live action by Ben Boskovic, Rebecca Eastham, Richard Galloway and Jason Lamar Ricketts. These scenes, together with Charles Angiama’s in-person monologues, are viewed through a barbed wire-topped fence: a continual reminder of the characters’ imprisonment.
The distancing effect created by such stylistic choices impedes emotional connection. Pippa Winslow as Sunny is particularly successful in conveying the nuances and humanity of her character on screen whereas other footage is less effective. For the most part, the audience members remain an impartial, helpless onlookers.
Despite its flaws, Houston’s production is suffused with creative flair. The cinematography by Grant Archer clearly evokes America’s cultural and geographical landscape and Eliyana Evans’ sound design similarly adds to the sense of place with atmospheric rain, sirens and cell doors clanking.