Stephanie Monday (center) plays “Sunny” Jacobs, who spent 17 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of the murder of two police officers.
There is a moment in The Exonerated when “Sunny” Jacobs talks about her resolve, despite all she’s been through, to keep hope alive:
“[I]f you sit there rubbing two sticks together and crying on your sticks, they’re never going to make a spark. But, you know, if you stop feeling sorry for yourself, just because you’re determined not to believe in hopelessness, then a spark happens, and you keep fanning that spark until you’ve got a flame.”
The Exonerated, which tells the stories of six people who were sentenced to death and later freed, is just such a flame, lit by words drawn entirely from actual court records, letters and interviews. The play, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, debuted off-Broadway in 2002 and was made into a searing film starring actors including Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover and Brian Dennehy in 2005.
Now Madison will host four readings of the play in April. The shows are free, but donations will be accepted to benefit the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which since 1998 has helped free 22 wrongfully convicted individuals, according to its co-director, Carrie Sperling.
“We welcome the attention that the play brings to the injustices that many in our criminal justice system face,” Sperling says in an email. “And we hope that as more people become aware of the enormous burdens wrongly convicted people face, the more likely we will be as a society to address the problems that need fixing in our imperfect system.”
The local productions are the inspiration of Meghan Randolph, executive director of Music Theatre of Madison, through a newly created Voices Theatre Project. She sees growing awareness of the failings of the criminal justice system, as evidenced by the successful documentaries Making a Murderer and The 13th, both of which have Wisconsin connections.
“It’s very strangely a nonpartisan issue, because both parties are complicit in this lock-everyone-up phenomenon,” Randolph says.
One of the play’s exonerees, Gary Gauger, was pressured by police into falsely confessing to the 1993 murder of his parents; his conviction was overturned and two motorcycle gang members were later convicted of the crime. Another, Kerry Max Cook, served more than 20 years on death row before being released due to DNA evidence in 1999; the charges against him were not fully dropped until last year.
And then there’s Jacobs, who served 17 years in prison for the 1976 murder of two police officers. She maintained that she and her common-law husband were actually hostages of the man who committed the crime. Her husband was executed by electrocution, horrifically, by the state of Florida in 1990. In 2011, she married a man who spent 15 years on death row in Ireland before his exoneration.
In the local readings, Sunny will be played by Stephanie Monday, a Madison-based stage and screen actor who has a UW-Madison law degree. Like her fellow castmates, Monday is volunteering her time because she believes in the cause. She appeared in a Chicago production of Dead Man Walking last year, and was deeply moved by the experience. She is struck by Sunny’s optimism in the face of adversity.
“She’s such a character of hope and, right now, when we’re looking at the world, that appears to be lacking,” Monday says. She feels the play’s urgency, and the sense of vulnerability it conveys: “These could be anybody’s stories. You could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and it could happen to you.”
The Exonerated will be performed April 8 and 9, at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, and on April 21 and 22, at the UW-Madison Law School. The April 9 show is at 5 p.m.; all other performances are at 7 p.m.