Presented by the Actors’ Gang and directed by Tim Robbins. At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Thursday, April 20.
Reviewed by Carlos Morton
One of the standard rules of playwriting is to avoid the use of a narrator, as the play will fall into the realm of the short story. Of course there are exceptions, like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and recently performance artists such as Anna Deavere Smith and Cultural Clash have taken this hybrid form to a new level. So it is with the Actors’ Gang and their current production, The Exonerated. The Exonerated is a series of stories told in the first person about individuals’ experiences with the judicial system. They were all charged with crimes they did not commit, and some were jailed for as many as 20 years. Many are black, and were framed by racist police or made scapegoats by politically motivated prosecutors. Years later, the truth was revealed through DNA or other evidence, and they were “exonerated” — or at least set free. Yet often they feel they are never totally “free” with the albatross of a prior felony conviction hanging around their neck.
The performance at UCSB’s Campbell Hall featured a stark set (chairs and two tables) and very strong acting by the Actors’ Gang Ensemble, especially Harold Surrat, Yolanda Snowball, Adele Robbins, Lorenzo Gonzalez, and Ken Elliott, who were aided by the fabulous lighting design of Ellen Monocroussos. There were moments when you could hear a pin drop, and other times when the audience gasped in unison at an atrocity committed by the judicial system. The only time credibility was strained was with the portrayal of some Southern cops who came across as caricatures, with cracker drawls signifying “NASCAR.”
A few people walked out in the middle, perhaps tiring as the stories became repetitious — not because of the theme, but because of the form. There were a few too many “private” scenes with one or two people talking directly to the audience and not enough “public” scenes where we became part of the community, as in Our Town or The Laramie Project. Still, the cast received a standing ovation at the end, and a lively discussion ensued afterward.