“It is not easy to be a poet here, yet I sing!” So says a voice among us, a voice that that evokes a lifetime of suffering and unfairness but one that, gently and firmly, insists on our common understanding. The voice belongs to the gifted actor Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. The place of this shared experience is the Historic Bristol Statehouse. The play is 2nd Story Theatre’s production of “The Exonerated”, it is being performed right now and, judging from the rehearsal that I attended, is that rare sort of theatrical experience that must not be missed.
“The Exonerated” is a compilation of actual testimony and true-life experiences of an assortment of people who have been unjustly condemned to death row. All had their sentences overturned and all the dialogue that we hear was not written by an author but collected from these ordinary people who found themselves by horrible circumstance “thrown to the bottom of the well.” Though this sounds harrowing, the experience is incredibly uplifting and spiritual, the small flames of faith are convincingly fanned by this talented ensemble. And what we witness here is nothing short of simple, pure redemption.
Though the venerable Statehouse in Bristol has been utilized by 2nd Story before, what makes this theatrical experience unique is that, though it deals with the gross miscarriage of justice, this is not a courtroom play. But as the ensemble, seated in our midst and all around us, begin to testify, we feel more as if we were in a church or chapel. The small confines of this spare space allows for intimacy, the voices we hear are very close to us, allowing for a personal connection as well as a gentle reminder that those that we bear witness to here, though they have experienced that which hopefully we never will, are not at all different from us.
The production also marks the first collaborated production between 2nd Story and Mixed Magic Theatre. In 2000 Ricardo Pitts-Wiley and his wife Bernadet founded Mixed Magic Theatre, which is dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic ideas onstage. Currently based in Pawtucket, and under the Artistic Directorship of Wiley’s son Jonathan, a 2007 Yale University Grad, Mixed Magic has presented a wide variety of great theatre to RI audiences. Productions have ranged from “Moby Dick, Then and Now,” which received considerable national and international acclaim, the celebrated “A Kwanzaa Song,” and many productions of Shakespeare.
A veteran of Trinity Rep and many other theaters, Ricardo-Pitts Wiley has performed in over 100 plays, written 12 and has directed well over 50 productions. His is, as you may well imagine, a singular presence onstage. Mr. Pitts-Wiley is one of those rare performers whose features can eloquently speak volumes without saying a word. But that voice is both rich and resonant, and, to quote Shakespeare here is “propertied of all the tuned spheres, and that to friends. But when he meant to quail and shake the orb, his was as rattling thunder.”
“If you dream in this world, it’s dangerous. To wonder ‘how’ is dangerous.” So says he in “The Exonerated” as Delbert, a man wrongfully convicted of murder. Delbert serves as a narrator of sorts for these proceedings and, more importantly, as our conscience and guide. Pitts-Wiley’s countenance onstage is watchful and calmly aware and this inexorably draws us into his world, as we witness a man whose own sense of personal power has been profoundly “messed with.” There is nothing “actorly” about his performance—instead it brings the grace that Delbert extols us “is so hard to find here” but it is grace achieved a steep price.
The rest of the cast consists of fine actors from both 2nd Story and Mixed Magic Theatres and the collective ensemble creates a compelling atmosphere. The inherent unfairness of their situation is clearly delineated by the collective cast as is a sense of muted urgency at the quotidian futility of being locked up for a very long time for something you did not do. We are drawn into their lives and ultimately the common experience generated here is not despair but hope; by insisting upon understanding and redemption “The Exonerated” transforms into a celebration of these lives. Director Ed Shea has created a communal experience onstage, the stories seem channeled through these actors and not merely told by them. “What makes this show special is that the events are all true and the people are all real”, says Ricardo. He continues: “The Exonerated” will challenge audiences to examine the American criminal justice system in terms of fairness and the potential for mistakes. And it will question their preconceptions of how the system works or doesn’t work.”
I asked Ricardo about the seeming irony of a play telling of a lifetime of wrongful incarceration having such a profoundly powerful spiritual quality. He replied: “the spirit is as essential to life as a heartbeat. When logic, fairness, reason and the law all fail the only thing left is the spirit. One of the harsh realities of this type of incarceration is that there is a concerted effort to kill the spirit before the body is killed. But often in that situation the greatness of the human spirit is revealed.”
And it is this spiritual journey from despair and towards redemption that makes “The Exonerated” ultimately a celebration. We see how easily one weak link in the chain of human experience can trigger catastrophe and share how “folks no different than you” can have their lives turned upside down. And if bearing witness to innocent lives hanging in the balance makes us think “there but for the grace of God go I”, this experience hopefully will trigger in us a greater search in ourselves for that grace.
“The Exonerated,” a 2nd Story/Mixed Magic collaboration at the Historic Bristol Courthouse now through June 30.
M.J. Daly is Georgia and Tom Chace is Gary in "The Exonerated", produced by 2nd Story Theatre in collaboration with Mixed Magic Theatre, at The Bristol Statehouse, through June 30.