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2008 News Releases

Longwood Theatre presents "The Exonerated" - A Docudrama about Capital Punishment

January 28, 2008

Longwood Theatre’s upcoming play comes straight from the pages of today’s newspapers.

The Exonerated, an award-winning docudrama about six former death row inmates who were eventually released after being found innocent, will be performed Feb. 20-24 in Jarman Auditorium. Two special events are accompanying the production. Sister Helen Prejean, the country’s most prominent death penalty opponent, will speak on campus the week before the play, and a panel discussion about capital punishment – one of whose panelists is a former death row inmate who was exonerated – will follow the first performance.

“This play couldn’t be more timely,” said Pam Arkin, associate professor of theatre, who helped bring Prejean to campus and is directing the play. “New Jersey abolished the death penalty in December, the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively declared a moratorium on executions as it debates the issue, and convicted murderers across the country have been released due to advances in DNA evidence. Plus, Virginia is the second leading state in carrying out executions.”

Prejean, author of the bestselling book-turned-Oscar-winning film Dead Man Walking, will speak Thursday, Feb. 14, at 8 p.m. in Jarman on “Dead Man Walking: The Journey Continues.” Prejean, who has ministered to death row inmates and other prisoners since 1981, will sign copies of Dead Man Walking and another book she wrote, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

The Exonerated, first produced in 2002, was written by Jessica Blank and her husband, Eric Jensen, who in the summer of 2000 traveled the country interviewing 40 former death row prisoners who spent from two to 22 years in prison before being released. The play’s dialogue is based on interviews, letters, transcripts, case files and other public records.

“We don’t often do plays as realistic as this,” Arkin said. “This really is a docudrama because every word is from interviews or court records. These peoples’ stories are compelling but not sad. There’s a lot of humor in this play; you couldn’t survive on death row without humor. The play is about surviving, about what the human spirit can overcome. People need to remember that some of the language is stark. This is real life, not Hollywood. However, since these people were exonerated, it’s uplifting; there is redemption, there is hope.”

The first performance, Wednesday, Feb. 20, is at 7:30 p.m., a half-hour earlier than usual to accommodate the panel discussion. Panelists will be Shujaa Graham, who spent three years on death row before being exonerated, and Jack Payden-Travers, director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who on Feb. 14 will become the public education associate of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. It will be co-sponsored by Witness to Innocence and moderated by Dr. Deborah Kelley, associate professor of criminal justice at Longwood.

Graham, framed in 1973 for the murder of a prison guard in Stockton, Calif., was on death row in San Quentin prison from 1976 until the California Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1979. Released in 1981 after being found innocent at his fourth trial, he now lives in the Washington, D.C., area and lectures on the death penalty and the criminal justice system.

Payden-Travers is on the board of directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. A former Lynchburg College history professor, he has lived in Lynchburg for the past 10 years but is moving to Durham, N.C., where the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project is based.

“Having someone on the panel who was exonerated puts a human face on it,” Arkin said. “We hope the panel will provoke dialogue; we want people to talk about this issue.”

Arkin met Prejean last summer at the annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, held in New Orleans where Prejean lives. “She is not your stereotypical nun; she is feisty and spunky,” said Arkin. “The fact that we’re doing The Exonerated is serendipity because I selected the play before I met her. Once I met her, I felt I had to bring her to campus because she’s familiar with the play.”

The other performances of The Exonerated are 8 p.m. Feb. 21-23 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24. Phone the Jarman Box Office (434-395-2474) for ticket information.