The popularity of verbatim drama hit the Edinburgh Fringe some time before it became a real phenomenon down south. The Laramie Project received its British professional première in London less than two months ago, but had previously been seen more than once in Edinburgh. Now comes this piece compiled by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from interviews and legal records, recounting the stories of six innocent people on America's various Death Rows (mostly in southern states – Florida, Missisippi, Texas – but one in Illinois).
The play has developed into a kind of miscarriage-of-justice counterpart to The Vagina Monologues in the United States, with celebrities eager to endorse its argument by appearing as one of the folk who sit behind text-stands giving rehearsed readings of these people's testimony in every sense of the word. This spirit has spread to the Assembly production, in its new occasional outpost in the Queen's Hall: this week the Texan man wrongly accused as a teenager of raping and murdering a woman is played by Aidan Quinn, last week the cast included Robert Carradine and – most affectingly – Sunny Jacobs playing herself, recounting the story of how she and her husband were framed for the shooting of two policemen. The Jacobses learned Japanese in prison in order to keep the more personal parts of their correspondence private; by the time Sunny was released after sixteen years on Death Row, her husband had already been executed.
The accounts are spare and factual, but edited with that slight tendency towards explicit uplift that's more common in American verbatim plays than in British. Jacobs' determination to live her life in the light as a monument to her past tragedy is admirable; the final words of a former candidate for the ministry as he tells how, since his release, his idea of a perfect day is just "to get blasted" on drink and/or drugs are a stark indictment of the damage more often done by these injustices; but they each feel almost tailored to be part of the piece's coda, just as the account of a black poet is a little too palpably the sort of material that would form the narratorial voice-over in a screen version. Even amongst cynical Brits, though, as with The Laramie Project there is no denying the importance of the subject itself.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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