Rescheduled: Death row survivors tell their stories in Theatre Oxford’s ‘The Exonerated’
Published 3:19 pm Tuesday, December 19, 2023
The stories told in “The Exonerated” are testaments to resilience and faith, but also the post-traumatic stress that having lived in the shadow of death can bring, particularly when you are innocent of the crimes that put you on prison’s death row.
Sunny, 50, a mother of two, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up on Death Row. Gary, a 45-year-old hippie, was so “brainwashed” by police interrogators that he falsely confessed to murdering his own parents. Sixty-year-old Delbert Tibbs got convicted of murder because he happened to be black and near the small Florida town where a man was killed and young woman raped.
“A bunch of cops surround us, and I’m trying to explain that we were kidnapped, but they just wouldn’t listen,” Sunny said about the aftermath of her fateful ride with an armed man who had forced her and her children into a car after killing two cops.
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Gary’s troubles accelerated after he got to the police station. “They wouldn’t let me sleep, wouldn’t let me lie down,” he said. “I was emotionally distraught. I was physically exhausted. I was confused. … They started making me think I had a blackout and had actually done it.”
Delbert Tibbs, an old soul from Chicago, seminary dropout, military veteran and radical poet, had to learn how to cope with being an innocent man on death row. “This is not the place for thought that does not end in concreteness,” Tibbs tells us. “It is dangerous to dwell too much on things. To wonder who or why or when, to wonder how, is dangerous. How do we, the people, get outta this hole, what’s the way to fight?”
These true stories are among the half-dozen told in Theatre Oxford’s production of The Exonerated at the Powerhouse Arts Center Saturday, Jan. 6, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. A discussion on the legal and other issues raised by the play will be led by Tucker Carrington, the founding director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, at the Powerhouse Saturday after the matinee. Serving as moderator will be Melissa Gwin Pedron.
Theatre Oxford’s Jan. 6 production of “The Exonerator” may be timely considering the current case in Mississippi of death row inmate Willie Jerome Manning, whose attorneys are seeking a dismissal of state Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s efforts to establish an execution date for Manning. The attorneys argue that new evidence challenges the convictions of Manning, on death row since 1994, for the murders of two Mississippi State University students. Theatre Oxford does not have a position on this case.
The production, re-scheduled to Jan. 6 after a cast illness prevented production on its original Sept. 8-9 dates, is made possible by the support of Frye | Reeves Attorneys at Law, the Mississippi Arts Commission and Yoknapatawpha Arts Council.
Authored by Jessica Blank and Erik Jenson, “The Exonerator” shares true stories that range from racially motivated arrests and false confessions to tales of guilt by association. Directing the Theatre Oxford production is theatre veteran Felipe Esteban Macias.
“We have six wonderful stories wrapped up in one play,” Macias says about “The Exonerator.”
Taken from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files and public records, the stories offer sobering insights into the nation’s criminal justice system and capital punishment. “The Exonerator” won the 2003 Drama Desk and Outer Critic’s Awards and also received the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Champion of Justice Award.
Tickets will be available at the door and seats can be reserved at https://oxfordarts.com/theatreoxford.
The Powerhouse is located at 413 South 14th Street in Oxford (on the corner of University Avenue). Parking is in back near the water tower. To learn more about Theatre Oxford, visit our website (theatreoxford.org) or follow them on social media (@theatreoxford).