Theatre Centre Visits Death Row in “The Exonerated” on Feb. 24



What impact does it have on a persontheir soul, their lifeto have freedom and self-respect stripped away and then seemingly returned years later after decades of incarceration? “The Exonerated,” a reader’s theatre production presented by the Chattanooga Theatre Centre on Sunday, February 24, attempts to answer this question through the words of six innocent men and women who, after years in prison, emerged from death row to try to reclaim what was left of their lives.


Culled from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files and the public record, “The Exonerated” tells the true stories of six wrongfully convicted survivors of death row, ultimately freed after serving varying years in prison, in their own words. It is performed as an anthology by 17 local actors seated behind music stands.


This prize-winning play moves between first-person monologues and scenes set in courtrooms and prisons, with the six interwoven stories painting a picture of an American criminal justice system gone horribly wrong—and of six brave souls who persevered to survive it.


We meet Kerry, a sensitive Texan brutalized on death row for 22 years before being exonerated by DNA evidence. We meet Gary, a Midwestern organic farmer condemned for the murder of his own parents and later exonerated when two motorcycle-gang members confess. We meet Robert, an African-American horse groomer who spent seven years on death row for the murder of a white woman before evidence emerges that the victim was found clutching hair from a Caucasian attacker.


We hear from David, a shy man with aspirations to the ministry, bullied into confessing at 18 to a robbery and murder he had nothing to do with, and from Sunny, a bright-spirited hippie who, along with her husband, spent 17 years in prison for the murder of two police officers, while another man confessed and was ignored by the courts. Finally, we meet Delbert, a black poet who serves as the play’s center, convicted of rape and murder in the Deep South of the 1970s and later freed when evidence surfaced showing that he was not even in the town when the crime occurred.


All their stories were compiled and edited by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen into a play that is both a riveting work of theatre and an exploration of the dark side of the criminal justice system.


The play originated as Blank and Jensen spent the summer of 2000 interviewing 40 former death row inmates who had been freed by the state after having served as much as 22 years in prison. They adapted the stories of six people into a script, and in 2002, the play premiered Off-Broadway. For their efforts, Blank and Jenson received the Champion of Justice Award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. It also won prestigious Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards, among others.


Under the direction of Todd Olson, the play features D’Andre Anderson (Robert), Dylan Kussman (Kerry), Ricardo Morris (David), Jason Russell (Gary), LaFrederick Thirkill (Delbert) and Julie Van Valkenburg (Sunny) in the roles of the falsely accused. The cast also includes Jerry Bowman, Courtenay Cholovich, Jim Eernisse, Judy Gallagher, Cary Garrett, Jeromie Gentry, Ray Laliberte, John McCune, Charlotte Olson, Christian Smith and Ruth Spellman.


The production is a benefit for the Chattanooga Theatre Centre and the Universal Unitarian Church of Chattanooga.


The performance begins at 3 p.m. Admission is $20. For tickets, call the Theatre Centre box office at (423) 267-8534 or visit


Posted February 15, 2019