A play about people who were wrongly sentenced to death is bound to have its darker moments.
But, “The Exonerated” features more than doom and gloom.
“It has everything in it,” Melissa Martin said. “There’s a phenomenal love story at the heart of it that’s true. It’s funny. Parts of it are really funny.”
An award-winning independent filmmaker, Martin is joining Heidi Mueller Smith in directing performances of “The Exonerated” scheduled for 7:30 p.m. May 17 and 18 at Sunnyhill (Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills), 1240 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon.
The play presents the actual words of six death-row inmates whose convictions were overturned.
“The way they tell stories, their observations about what happened and how it happened to them, even though they’re horrible, are sometimes funny,” said Martin, a former Mt. Lebanon resident.
“The Exonerated” has a cast of 10, including actors portraying the five men and one woman, Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs, who received death sentences. Two cast members portray the wives of wrongly convicted men, and the other two are ensemble actors playing the supporting cast of characters.
“They’re going to be seated, and then they come downstage when it’s their turn,” Martin said. “It’s very simple staging, but it is as dictated by the script.”
Among the performers are Wali Jamal, the only actor to have performed in all 10 plays of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” and Cotter Smith, Heidi’s husband, a cast member in the Netflix series “Mindhunter.” Many of the cast members, including the Smiths, also are members of the Sunnyhill congregation.
Actors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen wrote “The Exonerated” – which premiered in 2002, the year after the couple were married – based on their experiences.
“Over the summer of 2000, we traveled across the United States, sat in people’s living rooms and listened as they told us what it was like to be wrongly convicted and on death row. They were from vastly different ethnic, religious and educational backgrounds. The only thing they had in common was that they had each been sentenced to die, spent anywhere from two to 22 years on death row, had subsequently had their convictions reversed and been freed by the state,” the script’s introduction say.
The script’s notes on the performance of the play include commentary on the death penalty itself.
“Because the death penalty, itself, is inextricably connected to race, it is important that white people play white people and black people play black people. We strongly support nontraditional casting in general, but in the case of this play, it dilutes the reality of many of the issues involved,” the scripts notes say.
“The Exonerated,” which was adapted for a 2005 TV film starring Brian Dennehy and Danny Glover, has had only one performance in Pittsburgh, according to Heidi Smith. She and her husband wanted to stage the play to bring awareness to the issues it confronts.
“We have struggled, as a mostly white, middle class community, to respectfully participate in the conversation regarding social justice and prison reform, topics which have not affected most of us personally yet we feel strongly is in need of our focus and attention,” she wrote in a promotional letter.
All proceeds from the Sunnyhill performances will go to nonprofits: the Innocence Project, a legal organization committed to reforming the criminal justice system and exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing, and the Exonerated Fund, which contributes solely to supporting those whose situations the play addresses.
“There are virtually no resources in place to assist the wrongfully convicted in their transitions back into society,” Blank and Jensen wrote. “The vast majority re-enter a world where it is nearly impossible for them to make a living.”
For tickets to “The Exonerated,” which are $20 per person, contact 412-561-6277 or visit sunnyhill.brownpapertickets.com.