Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna) and his mother (Deborah Nansteel) are separated by prison guards in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of Blind Injustice. (credit: Philip Groshong)

Review: Cincinnati Opera’s Blind Injustice opens eyes with story of exonerated prisoners

Mark Gresham | 07 AUG, 2019

CINCINNATI, OH— “Reasonable doubt” is a term used in the justice systems of common law countries, like the United States, where evidence that is “beyond reasonable doubt” is the standard for validating criminal conviction. Prosecutors must prove their version of events to the extent that there could be no “reasonable doubt” in the mind of a “reasonable person” that the defendant is guilty. There can still be a doubt, but only to the extent that it would not affect a reasonable person’s belief about whether or not the defendant is guilty.

It is that doubt, and the dogged search for exonerating evidence that will free an innocent who has been wrongly convicted, which lies at the core of the 90-minute one-act opera Blind Injustice. Cincinnati Opera presented the world premiere on July 22, with a run of five sold-out performances through July 27. The performances took place in the Wilks Studio, a small black box performance space upstairs at Music Hall in Cincinnati.

Rickey Jackson (Eric Shane) is arrested by police. (credit: Philip Groshong)

Rickey Jackson (Eric Shane) is arrested by police.

No surprise, then, that Blind Injustice came about as a collaboration of efforts between Cincinnati Opera and the Ohio Innocence Project, which has a mission “to free every innocent person in Ohio who has been convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.” The libretto by David Cote is based upon field work by the Ohio Innocence Project and the eponymous book by Mark Godsey, co-founder and director of the Ohio Innocence Project, a former prosecutor, and a professor of criminal law at the University of Cincinnati.

Godsey’s book was published only recently, in February of this year, but seeds of the idea of for opera were sown in early 2017, and the first draft of Cotes’ libretto finished in early 2018.

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The theme of Godsey’s book is exposing the psychology and politics behind wrongful convictions. The opera does the same in dramatic fashion through the stories of four cases of wrongful convictions in Ohio, in which the Ohio Innocence Project became involved and was key to securing exoneration in each. The story is so fresh that some post-exoneration civil judgments for restitution were only achieved during the past year, and adjustments to Cote’s libretto were being made as late as early July.

The eclectic score, composed by Scott Davenport Richards, makes use of a variety of styles including jazz, funk, gospel, hip-hop, primarily associated with the African-American experience, but goes beyond that sphere to such stylistic allusions as using minimalism to represent forensic science, which is critically portrayed as not being quite as objective as touted, at least in its use by prosecution in a trial.

Evidence is presented by forensic scientists, observed by Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi) and law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor). (credit: Philip Groshong.)

Evidence is presented by forensic scientists, observed by Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi) and law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor).

Nevertheless, the opera’s score is cohesive, in fact it is the instrumental undercurrent that grounds the vocal parts, which are often more declamatory in their exchange of dialogue than not, and gives them musical form. A standout exception is Scene 14, “The Hole,” a solo (sung by tenor Terrence Chin-Loy) which could effectively find its way to standalone use in a recital.

The small orchestra, led by conductor John Morris Russell, is centered around a traditional jazz trio – piano, upright bass and trap set – expanded by a handful of winds, four strings (three violins plus cello) and an extra percussionist.

Exonerees Nancy Smith (Maria Miller), Laurese Glover (Terrence Chin-Loy), Rickey Jackson (Eric Shane), Eugene Johnson (Miles Wilson-Toliver), Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna), and Clarence Elkins (Thomas J. Capobianco). (credit: Philip Groshong)

Exonerees Nancy Smith (Maria Miller), Laurese Glover (Terrence Chin-Loy), Rickey Jackson (Eric Shane), Eugene Johnson (Miles Wilson-Toliver), Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna), and Clarence Elkins (Thomas J. Capobianco).

The cast of a dozen singers, more than half of whom were making their Cincinnati Opera debuts, worked well as a balanced ensemble, no one singer standing out as a singular principal voice, but functioned as a true collective in singing and presenting the drama; yet each had some moment of spotlight.

This balanced collective nature of the storytelling was enhanced by the stage direction of Robin Guarino and lean production design of Andromache Chafant, executed in a live stage area 16 feet wide by 50 feet long, positioned between two sections of audience on the long sides, as if on bleachers in a miniature gymnasium.

Defense Attorney (Samuel Levine) and law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor), and Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi). (credit: Philip Groshong)

Defense Attorney (Samuel Levine) and law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor), and Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi).

The set itself is limited to a long conference table that can be moved on or off stage and a number of wooden chairs that can be deployed where needed, making for an exceptionally portable production that Cincinnati Opera could easily and economically tour across Ohio if they wish.

The opera opens with the Prosecutor’s office singing about “getting the job done” – that is, winning cases, with the implication of “at any cost.” It portrays the Prosecutor (baritone Joseph Lattanzi) as having the mind-set of a rock-star celebrity, and that then assurance of winning cases is the most important thing, not examining residual doubt. In an “adversarial” legal system, where the judge is not involved in the inquiry itself, it is the prosecutor’s job to make the case and win.

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Its drama then unfolds by interweaving the stories of the four separate cases, cutting back and forth between them as it progresses. The case of Nancy Smith (mezzo-soprano Maria Miller), a Head Start bus driver who was accused of molesting children she drove, convicted on coached testimony. The East Cleveland 3 – Laurese Glover, Eugene Johnson and Derrick Wheatt (tenor Terrence Chin-Loy, bass-baritone Miles Wilson-Tolliver and baritone Sankara Harouna) – who as teens witnessed the shooting death of a man, but were arrested for it and convicted based on coerced testimony of a 14-year-old. Clarence Elkins (tenor Thomas H. Capobianco), convicted of the rape and murder of his mother-in-law and the rape of her young granddaughter, despite an alibi and the absence of his DNA at the crime scene, and mis-identification by the traumatized child victim. Rickey Jackson (baritone Eric Shane), falsely identified in a murder by a boy who made up the story, but forced to stick to it by police.

Defense Attorney (Samuel Levine) and law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor). (credit: Pjilip Groshong)

Defense Attorney (Samuel Levine) and law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor).

Each describes life behind bars. The Ohio Innocence Project gets involved and uncovers flaws in each of the cases and confront the Prosecutor. Then each tells the story of their exoneration. But the conclusion foreshadows more yet to be done. The Defense Attorney (tenor Samuel Levine) and law student Alesha (soprano Victoria Okafor) receive bad news about another client, accused in a death penalty case where evidence is being blocked by a judge, and the peril of systemic injustice remains an ongoing saga.

For the opera’s final statement, the entire cast poses the question: “What makes a person strong enough to endure being wrongfully convicted?” and the Prosecutor muses about living with doubt. Most important of all, however, is the closure for the story’s six exonerees. There is no doubt that, belatedly and with great effort, at least one corner of the justice system worked for them in the end. They are now free.

We the audience, however, are left at the end with a cumulative mix of powerful emotion — anger, incredulity, grief and compassion — for the half dozen ordinary people whose lives were interrupted and transformed by wrongful incarceration. Most of all, we are left with a residual sense of anxiety that what happened to them could as easily happen to any of us. ■

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