Being the Exonerated, a staged reading presented June 26th as part of The ArtsCenter’s “Hidden Voices” series and performed as a benefit for The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, was a heart-wrenching experience for many in the audience. Much of its power came from the presence onstage of Darryl Hunt, wrongly convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Debra Sykes, and Jennifer Thompson, whose mistaken identification of Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her in 1984 resulted in Thompson’s conviction and imprisonment until 1995. Cotton joined Thompson onstage for the post-performance discussion.

What did you do between 1984 and 2004? Hunt went through two trials and spent two decades in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. (Cotton was behind bars for 11 of those 20 years.) Ultimately, DNA tests exonerated both Hunt and Cotton and they identified the real rapist and killer of Debra Sykes and the real rapist of Jennifer Thompson.

There was a time in the State of North Carolina, not so very long ago, when both men might have been sentenced to death and executed before evidence of their innocence surfaced. Hunt, Thompson, and Cotton say that there are others also wrongly convicted who may be put to death when DNA tests might clear them. That’s why Thompson made the documentary “What Jennifer Saw” about how eyewitness identification can go wrong. And that’s why the North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium is campaigning so hard to get the General Assembly put the death penalty on mothballs.

ArtsCenter Stage artistic director Lynden Harris says the Carrboro, NC-based center originally planned to present the Blue Moon Theatre Company’s production of The Exonerated, an award-winning Off-Broadway “Living Newspaper” by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen that chronicles the chilling real-life stories of five men and one woman sentenced to death and, in some cases, very close to execution before exculpatory evidence freed them from Death Row. When the Winston-Salem-based theater company lost the rights to perform their version of The Exonerated, under the direction of Wake Forest University theater professor Brook Davis, one more time last Sunday, Lynden Harris pieced together Being the Exonerated, which combined Darryl Hunt and Jennifer Thompson’s first-person accounts with ad-libbed versions of the stories of the six Death Row survivors spotlighted in The Exonerated.

Although they sometimes rambled, Hunt and Thompson provided electrifying first-person accounts that proved more compelling that six true stories improvised by Blue Moon Theatre Company members Ralph Shaw (Delbert), Michael Kamtman (Gary), Frank Joyner (David), Tim Austin (Kerry), Beth Bostic (Sunny), and Andrew Sheran (Robert). But five men and one woman from Blue Moon especially Kamtman and Bostic performed most admirably under the circumstances.

The ArtsCenter: [inactive 1/06]. The Exonerated: [inactive 1/06]. The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice: Winston-Salem Journal: “Murder, Race, Justice: The State vs. Darryl Hunt”: “What Jennifer Saw” (PBS Frontline): [inactive 1/06]. North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium: [inactive 1/09]. People of Faith Against the Death Penalty: [inactive 5/06].