‘Blind Injustice’ opera, at Montclair State, depicts harsh realities of the wrongly convicted

blind injustice review

From left, Marc Kudisch, Miles Wilson-Toliver, Kyle Oliver and Adrienne Danrich co-star in the Peak Performances production of “Blind Injustice.”

There are few shades of gray in “Blind Injustice,” a bold and remarkable opera — about six people who were wrongly convicted of crimes, and later exonerated — that Peak Performances is currently presenting at The Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, with one more show scheduled for Feb. 18. (“Blind Injustice” was first presented in 2019, but this is a new “Opera-in-Concert” version, produced by Peak Performances.)

Joseph Lattanzi as the prosecutor in “Blind Injustice.”

The preening prosecutor (played by baritone Joseph Lattanzi) and his associates are so blinded by their desire to win the case (“Gettin’ the job done!” is their slogan) that they won’t stop to consider that they may be wrong. Police officers, prison guards and easily misled forensic scientists are equally cruel, and never sympathetic.

Meanwhile, the defense attorney (tenor Samuel Levine) and his law-student assistant (soprano Victoria Okafor) seem almost saintly. The exonerees (played by baritones Phillip K. Bullock, Miles Wilson-Toliver and Eric Shane Heatley, soprano Reilly Nelson, and tenors Orson Van Gay II and Logan Wagner) may have some minor faults, but they are all essentially good people, caught up in horrible circumstances beyond their control.

A librettist working from scratch might have made things more complicated, giving the bad guys some good qualities, and the good guys more flaws. But David Cote, drawing from the casework of the Ohio Innocence Project (an organization that has been involved in 42 exonerations) and OIP co-founder Mark Godsey’s book “Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions,” evokes a harsher reality.

To put it as bluntly as Cote portrays it, the justice system failed miserably in these cases: It ruined the lives of these six people, and he is not going to pull any punches about that. From the opera’s first lines — “What makes a person rape a grandmother/And bludgeon her to death/And rape and beat a 6-year-old-girl in the next room?” — he seems intent on shocking us into seeing the world as it can be, at its worst.

Cast and chorus members in “Blind Injustice.”

This is a big production, with a cast of 12, a 12-piece orchestra, and a 26-member choir made up partially of Montclair State students. (Some of the choir members briefly contribute to the acting as well.) Stage director and dramaturg Robin Guarino, musical director and conductor Ted Sperling and, really, all of the cast members, choir members and musicians did a great job of making all of the production’s many moving parts work together smoothly and effectively at the first show, Feb. 16.

The music, by Montclair State professor Scott Davenport Richards, offers a great deal of color and variety, ranging to jazzy vamps over which cast members deliver spoken or half-spoken lines, to splashes of dissonance to underscore the consternation of the wrongly convicted, to rousing ballads and even one hip-hop number. (Cote’s best rap line: “Our freedom got jacked in the county Cuyahoga/Cops so backward, they oughta wear a toga”).

As vividly as the suffering of the six convicts is depicted — the bluesy lament “The Hole,” about solitary confinement, is particularly harrowing — their stories end about as happily as they can, under the circumstances. DNA links the real killer to the crime scene, in one case; in another, a key witness recants his prior testimony, saying the police forced him to do it. The six wrongly convicted characters all manage to hold onto their humanity through their years in prison (one credits her religious faith with her positive outlook; another, much to his own surprise, becomes an enthusiastic member of an educational book program) and are able to re-enter society with no lingering bitterness.

Eric Shane Heatley in “Blind Injustice.”

Too good to be true? I have to admit, it crossed my mind. But after the 90-minute opera, two of the exonerees, Rickey Jackson and Nancy Smith, appeared in a talkback on the Kasser stage, along with the cast members who played them (Heatley and Nelson), the show’s creative team (Richards, Cote, Guarino and Sperling) and Godsey. And they both radiated positivity.

An audience member asked if they did any sort of therapy after going free. Jackson, who was in prison for 39 years, responded: “This is my therapy, right here: Meeting people, talking to people. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve traveled almost around the world, I have a beautiful young wife, a beautiful daughter. We have a beautiful home. And just being out with people like this, creative people like this, talented people like this … whenever I’m asked to do something for Mark, or people connected to the organization, I’m always more than willing. Because I get so much from it.”

“I’m so glad that they did this for us,” said Smith, a former bus driver who became a dog groomer after leaving prison, and is now retired. “It keeps us out in the public. It keeps this going, to educate more and more people on how many people are so wrongly convicted. And hopefully it’ll just keep going.”

Peak Performances’ final presentation of “Blind Injustice” will take place at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, Feb. 18 at 3 p.m. Visit peakperfs.org.

Peak Performances has created an “Exploration Page” for those who would like to learn more about The Ohio Innocence Project or New Jersey organizations involved in the same cause. Visit peakperfs.org/events/blind-injustice-explorer.

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