Cast meets exonerated prisoner; hug ensues

It was one of those classic Near West Theatre moments, where a profound conversation was best summed up in a silent, mass hug and a song about love. David Ayers of Cleveland, released in 2011 after serving 11 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and further vindicated by a jury on March 8, told his story at a rehearsal of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris on Monday evening, March 25. Seated in a circle with 33 cast and staff members, Ayers and attorney Carrie Wood of the Ohio Innocence Project described his journey through a system that conveniently but unjustly convicted him — and of advocates who used DNA testing and other evidence to show that he could not have been the perpetrator of a brutal 1999 sexual assault and murder in an apartment building where he had been serving as a security guard. Answering questions from the cast, Ayers spoke of the struggles of serving a sentence of 40 years to life, mostly in Ohio’s Mansfield Correctional Institution:  The pain of enduring the deaths of his parents while he was incarcerated. The tedious, 50-cents-an-hour job plucking excess rubber off of car parts with tiny pliers. The worry, the lack of sleep, the anger at God, the weeping, the migrane headaches. The inability to trust anyone in prison. “You  have to fight to survive, or else people will take advantage of you,” he said. What helped most? “People who believed in me” — not only the Ohio Innocence Project and the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office, but friends and family who kept writing letters and who were there for him when he was released. His descriptions of the emotional and physical effects of imprisonment will inform the Brel cast and staff as they shape a musical filled with songs of passion, personal struggle and social commentary. Ayers, now enrolled in college courses in criminal justice (“I want to be a crime scene investigator,” he said), engaged the cast throughout the evening with frequent smiles, laughter and gentle thoughtfulness. He was moved to tears when presented with a framed certificate that thanked him for sharing his story and for his integrity, persistence and courage. His and Wood’s were not the only tears as the cast showed their gratitude by singing “If We Only Have Love,” the closing number from Jacques Brel. In the silence after the song, cast member Christine Thompson stepped forward to give Ayers a hug. Then the entire ensemble rushed to surround him in a group embrace.  — Hans Holznagel

David Ayers (right foreground) and attorney Carrie Wood of the Ohio Innocence Project, met with the Jacques Brel cast on March 25, 2013. Photo by Hans Holznagel

David Ayers (right foreground), who served 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and, to his left, Ohio Innocence Project attorney Carrie Wood, met with Jacques Brel cast members on March 25, 2013. Photo by Hans Holznagel

Thirty-two cast, crew and staff members circled up for the conversation with David Ayers and Carrie Wood in the St. Pat's space being prepared for in-the-round performances of Jacques Brel in May.

Thirty-three cast and staff members circled up for the March 25 conversation with David Ayers and Carrie Wood in the St. Pat’s space where Jacques Brel will be performed in the round in May.

Cast members thanked David Ayers and Carrie Wood by singing "If We Only Have Love."

Cast and staff thanked David Ayers and Carrie Wood by singing “If We Only Have Love,” Brel’s closing number.

David's remarkable story and the emotional closing song resulted in no shortage of tears.

David Ayers’ remarkable story and the emotional closing song resulted in no shortage of tears.

With words spoken and song sung, all that was left for the cast to do was mob David Ayers with a group hug.

With words spoken and song sung, the only thing left to do was mob David Ayers with a Near West Theatre group hug.

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About Near West Theatre

Our Mission Statement: "Near West Theatre builds loving relationships and engages diverse people in strengthening their sense of identity, passion, and purpose, individually and in community, through transformational theatre arts experiences." View all posts by Near West Theatre

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