The funny thing about eureka moments is the way they sneak up on us unawares and radically rearrange our lives. The front-runners—maybe the only-runners—in the meager field of cell-block confessionals exist because of such moments.
On Sept. 15, after some time off, the Culture Project, under the leadership of founder and artistic director Allan Buchman, reclaims its theater at 49 Bleecker with a 10th anniversary edition of its most acclaimed presentation, The Exonerated, a harrowing docudrama based on court records and talks with six unjustly incarcerated, finally freed individuals.
The interviews were conducted by a couple of in-love, at-liberty actors, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, and the script they assembled—directed by Bob Balaban—will be performed by a rotating cast of Stockard Channing, Brian Dennehy, Delroy Lindo and Chris Sarandon, with a core group of six in support. Waiting in the wings to take over the leads are other name-brand actors like Brooke Shields and Lyle Lovett.
As it happens, it was also ten years ago that The Fortune Academy opened at West 140th Street. A home for men and women just out of prison, it’s a hulking, Gothic structure that lives up to its nickname, “The Castle.” Every Thursday night, at a community meeting there, residents talk about their struggles to adjust to freedom. A regular at these meetings was David Rothenberg, the Broadway publicist who produced Fortune and Men’s Eyes and founded The Fortune Society, which runs the Academy. Mr. Rothenberg couldn’t help but notice that the tales pouring out of “The Castle” were far more dramatic than the plays he was seeing at the time. It was not until “the five stools and the women”—The Vagina Monologues—that he realized how it could be done. Eureka! The Castle.
The Exonerated and The Castle would seem to be two very different schools of thought—testimonies of the wrongly imprisoned vs. testimonies of the formerly imprisoned—but the link that connects them and that grabbed the public’s attention was their shared hope for change.
For Mr. Jensen and Ms. Blank, the eureka moment occurred early in 2000, a few weeks into their romance, when she invited him to a death-penalty conference. Already smitten, Mr. Jensen said he “would have said yes to anything. If she had suggested I go get knee surgery, I’d have gone out and had done it—or broken my knees so that I’d need knee surgery.”
Held at Columbia University, the conference was a series of workshops on specific cases, and the one that held particular significance for the now-married couple concerned The Death Row Ten, a group of mostly African-American men whose confessions had been tortured out of them. “There was no evidence against most of these men, except for their quote-unquote confessions,” said Mr. Jensen. “The torture was the kind of stuff they did in Vietnam—full blows to the back of the head and electrical devices on genitals—anything that didn’t leave a mark.” The police commander responsible for these tactics was subsequently found out, fired and charged, but a half-dozen accused still remained on Death Row.
“We heard a lecture on the case, saw some documentary footage—all very disturbing but kind of on an intellectual level,” recalled Ms. Blank. That mood shifted sharply when workshop organizers piped in one of the imprisoned’s voices, via cell phone from Chicago. “The call only lasted a few minutes before it was cut off by authorities, and he wasn’t saying much more than he missed his family and wanted to come home, but by the end, people in the room were crying. There was something so powerful about the spoken word—the truth of it, the immediacy of it. It was enormously moving on a human, personal level.
“We actors immediately had the idea of creating a documentary play—to travel around the country and interview Death Row inmates and make a play from the transcripts,” said Ms. Blank. And since Culture Project often addressed human rights issues by spotlighting injustices, she found an easy mark in Mr. Buchman in May of 2000. “He said, ‘Great. You can have my theatre for free for three nights in the fall if you get a reading up before the election. Here’s $1,000. Go.’ Allan’s greatest gift was the deadline.” The couple zeroed in on the top 20 of their 40 phone interviews, rented a car, put the dog in the back seat and ventured forth to meet the incarcerated men in person.
They recorded interviews in June and July, workshopped the text with actors and came up with a first draft by August. While all this was going on, Ms. Blank said, “We were calling literally everybody we knew and asking for help. We called journalist friends and asked them how to do an interview. We called playwright friends and asked them how to write a play. We called lawyer friends and human-rights friends and folks who worked in the nonprofit world to ask them how to raise money. Aside from that first $1,000, we were raising money for our travel expenses ourselves. We were totally broke.
“One of the people we called was Bob Balaban, who had directed Erik, and we asked him if he’d consider directing the reading. He said, ‘Send me what you have,’ which was 150 pages of interview transcriptions, but he called us right back and said, ‘Yes, absolutely—and do you mind if I show this to some friends?’” Two weeks later, he told them Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon would do the first reading, and that brought other high-caliber actors on board. Eventually, the couple reduced the stories to six, added material from court transcripts and police reports and molded the play into its final form.
It had a two-year run in New York and has been performed at regional theaters, colleges—even high schools. “It’s gone on so long, and gotten the word out so well, we’ve started calling it The Exon—and on and on—erated,” beamed Mr. Jensen.
Recently the couple started picking up the pieces of their acting careers. Mr. Jensen just finished a pilot with Shaun Cassidy and director Thommy Schlamme, and, starting Sept. 28, Ms. Blank can be found Fridays at 9 p.m. on CBS’s Made in Jersey.
Atria published their book, Living Justice: Love, Freedom and the Making of The Exonerated, in 2005, as the Balaban-directed movie aired on CourtTV with Ms. Sarandon, Mr. Dennehy, Aidan Quinn and Danny Glover.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rothenberg has also diligently recorded his time with bars and stars—Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion—to be released Oct. 9 by Applause Books. The book begins one universe removed from the glitzy neighborhood where he hung with Liz & Dick & Marlene & Maurice—in Attica during the 1971 riots, when he was part of a team of observers, along with Minister Louis Farrakhan, The New York Times’ Tom Wicker and civil rights lawyer William Kunstler. He was introduced to the roiling inmates as “founder of The Fortune Society and producer of the prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes.”
That production began half a century ago, during a casual conversation with Nathan Cohen, drama critic of The Toronto Star. “He told me he’d just seen a reading of an extraordinary play that would never play Canada,” Mr. Rothenberg remembered. “He said it needed a New York imprimatur. I said, ‘Nathan, you haven’t liked anything since Potemkin. If you liked it, I gotta read it.’
“Well, I was chilled by the play. I’d seen prison movies. They were either rioting or escaping. They weren’t raping. This was about a kid who comes in and gets raped the first night, and, when I met John Herbert, I learned that indeed it was his story, and he had, in fact, been gang-raped. He told me he had been in a state of rage for 20 years. He was 36 when he wrote the play and 20 when it happened. Theater was his cathartic release. I gave it to several producers, and they all said, ‘Well, it’s a thrilling piece of theater, but who’s going to come?’ So I decided to produce it myself.”
And he did—at the Actors’ Playhouse, for 13 months in the late ’60s—directed by Mitchell Nestor, starring Victor Arnold, Robert Christian, Terry Kiser and Bill Moor.
The Fortune Society was born after ex-cons with stories to tell started populating the talkbacks after performances. Sixteen people gave two dollars cash for expenses, and a bank account was started with $32. Fortune, which aids prisoners’ reentry into society, now has a staff of over 190. Mr. Rothenberg served for 18 years as its first executive director.
In 1985, he ran for City Council; he didn’t win but was elected State Committeeman for the Democratic Party in 1986. “I realized, by then, that I had done all I could do at Fortune—that I was a grass-roots person, and it needed more sophistication,” said Mr. Rothenberg, who opted for a graceful exit and returned to theater publicity, where his old boss, producer Alexander Cohen, and Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding kept him busy.
When The Castle started looking like a viable property, he was pulled to the other side of the footlights to direct and dramatically shape the life stories of the cast. Produced by Chase Mishkin and Eric Krebs, The Castle put in a year Off-Broadway at New World Stages in 2008 and has been pelted with requests from colleges, churches and prisons ever since. “We’ll be in Sing Sing before 400 inmates on the 26th, back at The Castle on the 30th, at the Jewish Community Center at 76th and Amsterdam on Oct. 11, and in November at Baruch College and Rutgers. We have about 50 dates a year. I thought it’d fade away, but you can’t kill it with a stick.
“The Exonerated broke my heart when I saw it—they’re all innocent,” Mr. Rothenberg said. “Our cast isn’t. They’re guilty, but the crime is what they did—it’s not who they are. Every time somebody does a story, they want to know what they did, as if that told them who they are. As one guy says, ‘They should hear about all the things I got away with!’”