Posted on: May 8th, 2015 by Jacob Schott No Comments

Nirbhaya – By our Board Member Beatrix Ost

There is a truth that breaks stones
Nirbhaya. The fearless one. I have heard of her. She shook India out of a
terrible secret.

The streets of New Delhi, as crowded as they always are, filled not only
with more and more people. They overflowed with an outcry of
unimaginable proportions. Thousands of hands raised high, three fingers,
shouting Nirbhaya!

I am in line to go into the small theater, the place in memory of Lynn
Redgrave. The Culture Project. I go to this theater to be informed. Yes, I
have cried at this place, and stood up clapping, screaming Bravo! Bravo!
I am inside now, a group of friends with me, among them three males. The
stage is right in front of us, metal bars suggesting bus windows. A small
box to one side, from which smoke arises: an altar, really. We sit down with
our programs, reading, looking, and mostly silent, settling in.
A young woman comes onstage. She sings to herself, walking in circles,
walking in circles, crowned by smoke. The burning of her body, the ritual
which follows death. There is very little light, only her white dress, innocent

The actors appear, one man among many females. The story: the rape of a
woman in a bus in New Delhi. December 16, 2012. She is Nirbhaya. She
died for all women who have experienced actual violence. She burns
throughout the hours, while other women tell the violent history of their
existence. Like a match lit, we all burn with them. Their bodies are ours.
One actress’s face is disfigured by flames. I want to bathe her in milk. The
dark of New Delhi’s streets. The houses drenched in Indian splendor of
design, of symbols, of opulence. Rooms of imprisonment.
The silent cries of small girls violated by huge members, a silence of
despair. Large eyes telling unsung horror. Agents provocateurs, double
agents, everywhere. Lies drowning the truth. It is told to us by those
women who survived.

I become obsessed with discovery. I want to divulge the secrets of the
origins, the fears of men overwhelmed by women’s powers. They bleed,
they give birth. Men needed to slaughter animals and give the blood to
wrathful gods. Women just exist within, no mutilation. But what we see
here are the facts, all over the world. The truth is treaded upon like debris,
swept aside to clean the road of lies. Negligence, really, to brutally
discharge responsibility.

Like beads, the stories lie on the dark floor. We walk outside numb.
There is a get-together later. I take Sneha’s face in both hands, to kiss her
burnt skin. I hold Priyanka in my arms. I speak to Yael Farber, the woman
who wrote and staged this reality. I am honored to be listened to. I want to
dip my hand in red, and raise three fingers into the world we live in, to
point at the corpse of the lies, to the truth of stone.

Nirbhaya in the New York Times – Critic’s Pick by Ben Brantley

Posted on: May 4th, 2014 by ethan No Comments

Susan L.


– New York, New York.

We saw “The Exonerated” today and it was quite compelling. The stories are all true (literally verbatim from interviews) and the actors gave a *superb* performance. The show has been extended until December 2 and I really recommend it.

Posted on: May 4th, 2014 by ethan No Comments

Dave F.


 – Brooklyn NY

Simply put, I don’t think any other theater company in the city does work that is as timely, relevant, and important as the work that Culture Project put on time and time again.  They continue to amplify marginalized voices, bring issues to the forefront, and raise the level of dialogue on today’s important issues, through exciting theater, debates, film etc.

If you like a nice mix of politics and art, if you like to consume and be entertained and be given something to think about for days after, then check out Culture Project. I’m so glad they’re back on Bleeker Street where they belong.

Posted on: January 10th, 2014 by Allan No Comments


New Attitudes, No Cost Reading Series

Three exciting new plays by Crystal Skillman, Staceyann Chin & Alaudin Ullah

All readings are free and open to the public on a first-come first-serve basis.  No RSVP necessary. All performances take place at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at 45 Bleecker Street.


Crystal Skillman’s

4 Edges
Friday, January 24 @ 1PM
A Staged Reading
Directed by Jason Rost
In Crystal Skillman’s new play an outsider stumbles into a foreign land in search of the perfect photograph, but ambition draws her dangerously deep into the lives of her subjects when she participates in a ritual that exposes her own desires.



Staceyann Chin’s

Changing Station
Monday, February 24th @ 7PM 

A Solo Performance
Written & Performed by Staceyann Chin

This new one-woman show follows award-winning poet and stage veteran Staceyann Chin (Border/Clash) on her personal journey to motherhood as a single woman, lesbian and activist without stable finances or health insurance but with the burning desire to have a child.

Aladdin Ullah’s

Dishwasher Dreams
Monday, March 10th @ 7PM

A Solo Performance
Written & Performed by Alaudin Ullah
Tabla Accompanist – Avirodh Sharma
Directed by Chay Yew

Auditioning to play a terrorist in a major Hollywood movie may be stand-up comedian Aladdin’s big break. As he prepares for his audition, he finds himself thinking back on his deceased father, who left Bangladesh for a better life in New York, and his parents’ futile attempts to raise him Muslim in Spanish Harlem. Accompanied by the tabla, Aladdin takes us on a hilarious and moving journey about art, immigration, family, the Yankees and the nature of the American dream.


Subway Directions: 6 to Bleecker, BDFM to Broadway Lafayette

Questions may be directed to  Artistic Associate Alex Mallory at

Posted on: February 19th, 2013 by Elisa 1 Comment

Another WCS Flashback: Interview with Anna Khaja and Heather de Michele

Last year, Culture Project’s Women Center Stage 2012 Festival presented a workshop of writer/performer Anna Khaja’s Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto, directed by Heather de Michele. We were stunned by Anna’s ability to transform herself from one character to another to portray how each person regarded Benazir Bhutto in his/her own eyes and knew we had to give this play a run on Culture Project’s stage. Below is a 2012 WCS interview with Anna and Heather, discussing their inspirations, challenges, and hopes for Shaheed.

Tickets for Shaheed are on sale now! Visit our ticketing page or call 866-814111 to reserve your seats.


Anna, you just recently received the 2011 Ovation Award in Los Angeles for Leading Actress in a Play for Shaheed (which was also nominated for Best Production of the Year). First off: Congratulations! Could you tell me a bit about your experience in merging your performing with your writing? How does your performance inform your writing and vice versa?

Anna KhajaAnna: Thank you. I couldn’t have anticipated the journey of connection I would discover between performing and the writing. At first, I kept them completely separate. I had set out to create a solo play with one character, Benazir Bhutto. But as I sat down to write, a different story began to pour out of me. It involved seven characters, not one, each trying to reconcile their relationship with Bhutto. And then, at the climax, the eighth, character, Benazir would emerge, in the moments before her assassination. During the writing process, I let the actress part of me fall away. I was only interested in telling the story I felt needed to be told, in an intuitive way. If that meant that one of the characters was a sixty year-old male Pakistani college professor, so be it. And I trusted that the actress part of me would deal with how to play these people later. But once I had finished the final draft, I was terrified. I realized I had created characters far from my wheel-house, and had no idea if I could pull them off. When Heather and I first started working together, I would say things like, “I don’t know why the character says this.” The actress didn’t always know what the writer was thinking when she wrote something. I was frustrated that the two couldn’t seem to co-exist at the same moment. Eventually I learned to be objective and treat the piece as I would one by any playwright, and just dive in and do my work. During rehearsals, Heather was great about bringing things together pictorially and illuminating the themes and character aspects that I didn’t even know were there. Gradually, I was able to let go of the schism I had created. I would make narrative adjustments in the text as we rehearsed, and cut certain lines I knew I could convey with my acting. By the end of the rehearsal process, I felt everything had come full circle, and writer and performer had merged.


And Heather, what has been your experience directing a performer in a piece she wrote? Have there been any surprises in merging your creative visions for the piece?

Anna KhajaHeather: Working with Anna Khaja has been extremely rewarding. When an actor is performing her own words there is a certain level of investment that is thrilling to be a part of. Anna has tweaked the script in small (and sometimes large) ways after each run since the premiere in 2010. The script is constantly evolving and that evolution is a direct reaction to conversations that have taken place post performance with patrons or between Anna and I. As a writer, I know that Anna is always moving the work in a more daring and authentic direction. Since there is a constant dialogue between us and a high level of trust, our creative vision for Shaheed has continued to align. A rare and wonderful thing.


This piece is a compilation of monologues surrounding an historical event. Who are these characters? How much of each character is historical versus fictional? And have you seen them change and develop throughout the creative process?

Anna: While I had initially thought this play would only have the sole character, Benazir Bhutto, my research led me to the conclusion that the only way to understand Benazir is to understand who she was to others. People’s perceptions of her were, and remain, varied and contradictory. She was at once despised and adored to degrees we as Americans may find difficult to comprehend. Politics, I’ve learned, is extremely personal in Pakistan. It is life or death. I decided the only way I knew how to tell this story was through multiple perspectives.
Four of my eight characters are fictional, and were drawn to illustrate the humanity of Pakistan: Sara, an American college student in Rawalpindi; Cuseem, a former democratic revolutionary turned Yale professor; Shamsher, a street vendor ecstatic at his precious Bibi’s return as she will mean a way to be reunited with his daughter; and the daughter herself, Afshan, a teenage Muslim fanatic who was sent to a Madrassa rather than to starve on the street.
The other four characters are based on real people whose lives intersected with Benazir’s in a meaningful way: Condoleezza Rice, who conceived of the power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf that drew Benazir back to Pakistan; CNN interviewer Daphne Barak, who considered Benazir a close personal friend; Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s estranged niece and journalist who is highly critical of not only her aunt Benazir but also of Pakistani politics in general; and of course Benazir herself.
The characters and writing have all evolved as time goes on and will continue to do so. In a sense, I don’t consider this piece finished. I am still integrating ideas and illuminating themes, with the awareness that current events always seem to be commenting on Benazir’s life and legacy.


Anna, as a half-Pakistani woman, I can only imagine that this piece is inspired by a personal aspect of your life. Could you each talk a bit about where your inspiration has come from in the creation of this performance?

Anna: I am half-Pakistani, raised by my Pakistani father and American mother. Despite this, the lens through which I view Pakistan has, for the most part, been very American. Benazir’s assassination affected me deeply and filled me with questions about the world, about Pakistan, about myself. Shaheed was born out of my personal journey to answer these questions and try and discover the fractured soul of Pakistan, and the woman who risked her life to try and save it.
As I learned more about Benazir’s life, I sensed she had so much conflict inside her; as an educated woman in an Islamic society, a person of privilege in a desperately poor country, a member of a family that was adored and feared, and a human being tempted by corruption and excess. I found myself at once deeply admiring her and at the same time, doubting her motives. Most of all, I was gripped by the question: What kind of woman, in the face of certain danger, would go out in public on December 27, 2007 in Rawalpindi, of all places, the very spot her father had been hanged? Was it an act of great courage? An ego-driven addiction to adoration? An attempt to continue the work of her father? Or a conscious sacrifice in her political mission? I wanted to get inside that question and answer it for myself.

What do you hope to say with this piece? And what do you hope the predominantly American audience who views this performance will take away from it?

Anna: I hope that the audience leaves with an understanding that Benazir Bhutto was neither purely heroic nor purely corrupt – but a complicated woman who sometimes failed miserably and other times triumphed as a model of courage. I’d like them to leave the theater wanting to know more about both Bhutto and Pakistan. I’d like them to understand on a gut level how intertwined the fates of Pakistan and the US are. And I’d like them to have a deepened sense of the vast and dynamic group of people that practice Islam.
On another level, I also wanted to explore the Islamic concepts of the “Shaheed” (martyr) and “Jihad” (struggle). Both of these Arabic terms have rich and beautiful definitions in Islam, but have also been appropriated by radicals for their own ends. A “Shaheed” for instance is what suicide bombers often call themselves. But it’s also been applied to Benazir, who died for a cause in true sacrifice for others. Similarly, “Jihad” is a word that invokes fear in many Americans. In my play, I attempt to reclaim the word, hopefully explaining that Benazir’s mission to unite Islam and democracy was itself a “Jihad.”


How do you handle the delicate balance between art and politics in your work on this piece? How do you find politics and art intersect and inform each other? What are the challenges and graces you’ve encountered in your work with political theater?

Anna: I think that the word “politics” can be viewed as problematic in art simply because it connotes a kind of cold distance from “the personal.” But at the root of politics are humans striving for a certain kind of order, justice, rights and/or freedom within their own world experience. And this is very personal. Each character in Shaheed is trying to reconcile his/her own morality and personal integrity, with his or her political beliefs and actions. This isn’t easy for any of them. And it cuts them to the core. They look to Benazir (Bibi) for redemption. But by the end of the play, we see that Benazir herself is deeply conflicted, and locked in a desperate struggle between her own human frailty and her role as a world leader and a hero for Pakistan. At the end of Shaheed, she is searching for the courage to redeem herself and fulfill her destiny.


Posted on: February 13th, 2013 by Elisa No Comments

Flashback: Women Center Stage Interview with Monica Hunken

Monica Hunken

Monica Hunken in Blondie of Arabia

Culture Project first met Monica Hunken back in 2010 when she was performing Blondie of Arabia at The Living Theatre. After seeing her stunning solo performance we quickly asked her to workshop her new piece, The Wild Finish, in the Women Center Stage 2011 Festival. Below are segments from an interview we did with Monica during WCS 2011 discussing her unique and totally immersive approach to creating plays about her one woman adventures in Poland and the Middle East. You can read the full interview at

And don’t forget, Monica will be performing Blondie of Arabia at Culture Project Fri, Feb 15 and Sat, Feb 16! Visit our ticketing page to reserve your seats.

This journey was ventured on your bicycle– much like your travels across the Middle East for what became your last play, Blondie of Arabia. Can you tell us a little bit about your work with Time’s Up, and what encourages you to continue your work on two wheels?

I have now biked across six countries; Poland, Portugal, Spain, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and I have experienced the pleasure of biking in countries like The Netherlands where bike culture is strong and flourishing and then in The Middle East, where women are discouraged from riding bicycles altogether, lest it compromise their decency or even virginity. And as I have biked across more and more disparate lands, I become convinced in the necessity of increasing the use of this fun, healthy and sustainable form of transportation.

I bicycle across countries and sleep on the street and stay with strangers and have no money because I believe that convenience kills possibility. When I am riding through a land I feel a direct connection to the landscape and to the people. I am made completely vulnerable and it is that vulnerability that leads me to the deep connections I have with people along the way. They recognize that I have nothing to lose and that I trust them. I am at the mercy of their land. I do not want to protect myself from it or rush through it; I want to feel every grain of sand fly past my face and every raindrop bounce off my helmet.

New York City is a perfect city for bike riding. It is mostly flat and everything is relatively close together. It is also cluttered, congested and asthmatic. We need more bike lanes just as we need more parks, gardens and public spaces. I have been volunteering with Time’s-up! since the 2004 Republican National Convention when there was another surge of crackdown on bicyclists in NYC. I work with Time’s-up! because we celebrate the joy of biking and reclaiming public space for the people. We create roving dance parties and themed bike rides drawing attention to saving community gardens, protecting bike lanes, keeping Wal-Mart out of NYC and other local issues. We use our bodies as the means and the message. By powering ourselves we are less reliant on the destructive overuse of fossil fuels.

Your performances at The Living Theater will not be your first– can you share with us a little bit about your work with them, as well as with Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping and your many endeavors into the world of political theater? Why do you think performance and social and political issues should be meshed?

My first performance with the Living Theatre was on a tour of Mysteries and Smaller Pieces in Quito, Ecuador in 2006. We also created a street performance with locals that addressed their struggle with globalization and US influence. After another Mysteries run in NYC, I performed in Maudie and Jane, a two-woman show opposite Judith Malina, which was a startling and humbling experience to say the least. Each night before the show, Judith would regale me with tales of arrests and performances that would knock your socks off. And now I am currently performing in Korach about the first anarchist who rose up against Moses and rehearsing Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism late-night after Korach performances.

I began working with Reverend Billy after I watched an action at Astor Place with a bunch of people dressed up in prison stripes singing “I’ve been workin’ at the Starbucks all the little long day!” about Starbucks using prison labor.
After September 11th, 2001, my first day of theater school, I was seeking a way to respond in the street, to use my theater experience to inspire revolution in the only way I knew how. When I stumbled across the Rev. in 2002 I knew that I discovered something uncanny, something tapping into a deeply spiritual theatrical form that cuts through the power of fundamentalism and capitalism with ritual, revival and humor. What I love most about this diverse radical community is the joyous way we work out the difficult question of how do we become better citizens in this world by what we do and don’t consume. I also love our work in the street and inside stores and shopping malls. We step into a hypnotized zone where people are just meant to play the role of consumer and we interrupt that space and liberate it. We have traveled around the world exorcising cash registers, blessing local businesses and saints with song, reviving lost souls who believed the product is everything.

Chants and marches with cardboard signs have their place but I find them disturbingly dismissible. A passerby hears the shouting, takes a look and immediately labels and passes on, hoping to avoid an onslaught of propaganda. Theater can create something mysterious, something un-definable that first captures the imagination and then works its way into the reasoning mind.

I am a storyteller and for me, the most interesting stories to tell are those whose stories we don’t hear. No one could tell my father’s story because my father died and his company hushed it up. Fox news won’t bring you the intimate conversations I’ve had while biking along the Nile in Egypt. If I have the opportunity to travel this great, wild world, I will do everything I can to collect the stories of those I meet and bring them back to my community so we can again and again realize we are the same.


Posted on: November 8th, 2012 by Culture Project No Comments

Via: Innocence Blog

Posted: November 7, 2012 3:35 pm

Fernando Bermudez outside his polling location

Fernando Bermudez outside his polling place

For some political pessimists, voting may seem like thankless labor. For me, regaining my civil right to vote after over 18 years in prison as an innocent man fills me with gratitude. I was wrongfully convicted by the State of New York in 1992 and exonerated in 2009. This month marks my third year of freedom.

I felt the power of democracy when, after casting the first ballot of my life, my youngest child asked me, “Daddy, when may we vote?” I hope, by doing my civic duty, to leave her with a better criminal justice system than the one I experienced. Our family knows all too well the harm that factually innocent people suffer in prison. I advocate for criminal justice reform in New York State because I believe that public policy can help prevent wrongful convictions. Extra awareness of this public safety and human rights issue can influence votes and encourage politicians that criminal justice reform is important to their constituents. Preventing wrongful convictions, I think, cuts well across political and party lines.

I am already eager to hit the polls again.

Fernando Bermudez will speak about his experience of wrongful conviction at City College on November 14. Find more information about that event here.

Read the original blog post at

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 297 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.

The Innocence Project’s full-time staff attorneys and Cardozo clinic students provide direct representation or critical assistance in most of these cases. The Innocence Project’s groundbreaking use of DNA technology to free innocent people has provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events but instead arise from systemic defects. Now an independent nonprofit organization closely affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Innocence Project’s mission is nothing less than to free the staggering numbers of innocent people who remain incarcerated and to bring substantive reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.


Posted on: November 1st, 2012 by Culture Project No Comments

Death penalty is wrong, says Danbury man exonerated after serving 18 years in prison

By Fernando Bermudez
Posted: April 6, 2012

One would think that after spending more than 18 years in maximum security prisons that I would be an expert on our criminal justice system. I am certainly an authority on the system’s flaws — having been exonerated of a murder I did not commit — but I have much to learn about how to change the system so that others do not suffer the same fate.

This is why I am studying criminal justice at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and why I am a vocal advocate for repealing our state’s death penalty.

My case is tragically like so many others.

I spent more than 6,700 days in a 6-by-9 cell in some of the worst prisons in New York State. I was attacked by other inmates, subjected to men who were defecating right next to me, and had to endure unbearable noise to the point where — at times — I considered committing suicide.

During those 18 years I lost 10 appeals, despite a complete lack of evidence against me. Once a person has been convicted it is almost impossible to reverse the result, especially without DNA evidence. DNA evidence exists in only about 10 percent of all homicides.

So the potential for error is very real.

Across our country, nearly 300 people have been exonerated due to evidence of their innocence, including Kenneth Ireland, James Tillman and Miguel Roman right here in Connecticut — 140 of those exonorees had been on death row.

I was incredibly fortunate to have a tenacious attorney who had a creative idea about how we might earn a new trial. An impressive team was assembled — a law professor; a Washington, D.C., law firm; a former U.S. Attorney; the Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries.

My “Dream Team” helped to create a public outcry and I started to receive national media attention from MSNBC, CourtTV and The New York Times.

Eventually the prosecution admitted, for the first time in New York history, that their star witness had committed perjury. I was offered the opportunity to plead to manslaughter. I could go home and the charges would be dismissed. But I said no.

After 18 years of suffering for a crime I didn’t commit, I remained committed to the truth and went forward with the proceedings.

Finally, I would receive justice. Eleven witnesses came forward with the truth. The judge actually declared me to be “innocent” based upon perjured testimony, illegal identification procedures and prosecutorial error.

The system isn’t perfect.

My greatest fear as a personal victim of this wrongful conviction is that an innocent person may be wrongfully executed. The law is a human instrument and there is the possibility, the grave risk, of an innocent person being executed.

My experience continues to haunt me today, as it should all policy makers here in our state. I urge legislators to abolish the death penalty because what happened to me shouldn’t happen to anyone else.

Fernando Bermudez, a Danbury resident, spent 18 years in the New York state prison system for a murder he did not commit. He was exonerated and released in 2009.

Read the original blog post at


Posted on: October 19th, 2012 by Culture Project No Comments

Kerry Max Cook Speaks

Jayashri Wyatt the director of productions at Culture Project had a chance to sit down with Kerry Max Cook. He’s playing himself Oct 19-21 in the play THE EXONERATED.

Kerry Max Cook

Jayashri Wyatt (JW): It’s been 10 years since the last production of The Exonerated. How does it feel to be here in New York to see and participate in the play?

Kerry Max Cook (KMC): “I didn’t realize how much The Exonerated and all these people, Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, the actors the producer Allan Buchman had impacted and changed my life. It feels like coming home after being in prison for a long, long time.

JW: What was it like the first time Erik and Jessica interviewed you?

KMC: “Erik and Jessica, came as two playwrights and they left as friends. It was an incredible interview. They were only going to be there for an hour and they stayed for several hours and we went out to eat afterwards.

Erik had also lost his brother and he got very emotional. That’s where we really connected. The one I really connected with deeply with was Jessica, especially when it came time to talking about the sexual abuse I suffered in prison. I wasn’t comfortable having that conversation with another man because of how I was abused in prison. She was so sensitive and supportive as I told her about my experience.”

JW: Where are things at in your case right now. You’re still working on your case correct?

KMC: “My story today is exonerated but not free. I was scientifically exonerated but Texas didn’t have the judicial integrity to judicially exonerate me. Today the new fight is to expunge my wrongful conviction. I’m still a convicted man. Removing the stain of this conviction is critical. I still suffer –I still can’t get an apartment or a job or health insurance. 35 years later I’m still chasing justice.”

FACT: Mr. Cook is not legally exonerated. In fact, in the eyes of the state, he is still a killer — convicted of the 1977 rape and murder of Linda Jo Edwards.

JW: Why has the state not gone after James Mayfield who may have been involved in her murder?

KMC: “In their zeal to make me look guilty and make Mayfield look innocent they so corrupted the case – they couldn’t go after him even in the face of DNA evidence. The prosecutor in the case is still trying to get me.”

Kerry Max Cook’s son Kerry Justice Cook piped up: “They put so much time and energy into framing you that they had to cover it up because they were too embarrassed for the truth to come out.”

FACT: The DNA evidence proved that the semen found on Linda Jo Edwards underwear the night of her murder belonged to James Mayfield, a married man with whom Ms. Edwards had been having an affair.

Posted on: October 3rd, 2012 by Culture Project No Comments

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen on Creating The Exonerated

When original producer Allan Buchman contacted us earlier this year about reviving the original Off-Broadway production of The Exonerated, we were thrilled. It hardly seemed possible that ten years had passed since the play’s opening at Culture Project, but they had—and in those years, the national conversation about wrongful conviction and the death penalty has expanded more than we ever could have expected.

When we first brought the idea for The Exonerated to Allan, in the spring of 2000, we were a couple very young, impassioned actors, newly dating, with no money, little experience, and a big idea: travel across America, interview people who had been sentenced to death and subsequently freed amidst overwhelming evidence of their innocence; and create a documentary play from those interviews. Allan gave us rehearsal space, some seed money, and a tight deadline for a first draft. That deadline was so short (four months!) because that spring, wrongful conviction had suddenly burst into the news: Columbia University had released the results of a major long-term study that showed a high risk of convicting the innocent in capital cases; an execution date was set for Gary Graham, a Texas death row inmate whose guilt was in serious doubt, drawing national media attention; Governor George Ryan of Illinois, a pro-death penalty Republican, had just declared a moratorium on executions in his state because of the alarming rate of wrongful conviction; and another George was running for President for the first time—with more executions carried out under his watch in Texas than under any other governor, in any state, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. We thought we had a teeny, tiny window to get something up and into the public eye before our country’s attention wandered elsewhere and left the issue of wrongful conviction behind.

Boy, were we wrong.

In the years since The Exonerated first opened Off-Broadway, 44 people have been exonerated and released from death row. New York’s death penalty statue was ruled unconstitutional, effectively stopping the death penalty in our state. In 2007, New Jersey repealed its death penalty, followed by New Mexico in 2008, Illinois in 2011, and Connecticut in 2012. The West Memphis Three, perhaps the most well-known contested conviction case of the past two decades, were finally released from prison after 18 years, and their fight for full legal exoneration continues outside. Troy Davis, another death row inmate whose guilt was in gravely serious doubt, was executed in September 2011, drawing unprecedented levels of national and international attention to wrongful conviction and the death penalty. And the culture has changed: DNA evidence—in 2002 still a relatively new and cutting-edge forensic phenomenon—is now widely understood, and numerous TV shows, documentaries, and feature films about wrongful conviction (including the 2005 film version of The Exonerated) have drawn national attention.

And among this tide was an historical event in which The Exonerated was privileged to play a small part: Days before he left office, Governor George Ryan of Illinois commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates to life in prison, effectively clearing Illinois’ death row. Back in 2000, when he declared a moratorium on executions– the event which helped spark the idea for The Exonerated—Governor Ryan also appointed a bipartisan commission to look into what was causing so many innocent people to be sent to death row. After two years, that commission identified some serious defects in Illinois’ system, which, if remedied, could at least significantly reduce the risk of executing an innocent person, recommending 85 reforms in the state’s capital punishment system. By the time Governor Ryan was set to leave office, the Legislature had enacted none of the proposed reforms. In fall 2002, Governor Ryan began to publicly consider granting blanket clemency to all prisoners on Illinois’ death row. He went through an extensive process as he weighed this decision- including public clemency hearings in 142 cases- and that December, The Exonerated became part of that process. The cast of Culture Project’s Off-Broadway production traveled to Chicago to perform the play for Governor Ryan, and he has since stated that the play was a part of his decision to commute those sentences. In making that decision, Ryan consulted with thousands of experts more knowledgeable than we are; talked to hundreds of people closer to the issue, and most of all, followed his own strong conscience. But the fact that the play was even able to be a part of the conversation was enormously humbling. As artists hoping to have a positive impact on real people’s lives, we will be forever grateful for the opportunity to participate in that dialogue. As far as we were concerned, if that evening in Chicago were the only performance the play ever had, it would have been enough.

Of course, it wasn’t the only performance—after an initial Off-Broadway run of over 600 performances, runs in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, a national tour, and countless regional, university and even high school productions—The Exonerated is back in its original home, Culture Project, in a remount of its original production, featuring much of its original cast. It is amazing to us to watch the play ten years later, in a new cultural context, where “DNA evidence” and “wrongful conviction” are now household words, where the public awareness of wrongful conviction is far more common than it was ten years ago. The play is perhaps less of a shock—but it is as much of a call to action as it ever was.

For despite those 167 commutations and 44 exonerations, despite the repeal of the death penalty in four states and its discontinuation in another, despite the growing public awareness of the horror of wrongful conviction, we still live in a country where it occurs all too frequently. 3,170 people are still on death row in this country. And many of those systemic flaws identified by the Illinois State Legislature- the ones that, if remedied, would significantly reduce (though not eliminate) the risk of an innocent person being executed- go largely unremedied, not just in Illinois but nationwide. Improper forensic science, a lack of checks and balances on prosecutorial misconduct, reliance on unqualified or severely underpaid public defenders, use of informants and “snitches” (whose testimony is notoriously unreliable), failure to properly record interrogations in murder cases—all of these continue to be epidemic in city and state criminal justice systems across America.

In our Constitution, we have a truly extraordinary blueprint for a truly just system. Unfortunately, still, in 2012, there continues to be a wide gap between the way our system was envisioned and the way it functions in the real world, with many loopholes for corruption and human error that—despite increased public awareness—remain open. We believe that it’s our responsibility as citizens—and as human beings—to look at what that means, not just systemically and politically, but for individual human lives. We believe it’s our responsibility to listen—and to keep listening—to each other’s stories, so that we understand not just “the issues,” but how they impact real human families just like our own. When we started work on The Exonerated, we were a couple young kids with the vague hope that art and storytelling could have some kind of impact on the “real world.” Now, ten years later, we know from experience that it can. When we take the time to listen to each other’s stories, to venture outside our comfort zone and engage with the stories of people we think are very different from us–we find out that they’re not, in fact, so different; that we are more connected than we think; and that it’s up to all of us, as human beings, to ensure that the society we share is truly just.