Play Inspired by Fernando Bermudez Debuts
TNC' presents "Pedro Castillo..." blocks from site of crime
NEW YORK CITY – Theater for the New City Executive Director Crystal Field and the Textile Company are presenting “Pedro Castillo is Innocent,” a new play inspired by the case of Fernando Bermudez and the problem of wrongful conviction.
The production will run Feb. 4-7 and Feb. 11-14 at TNC, 155 First Ave., in Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the crime for which Bermudez was arrested and exonerated.
The Textile Company was named TNC’s resident theater company after presenting a series of plays there over the past two years.
This play tells an emotional story about how an innocent man’s incarceration affects him and his family.
Danielle C.N. Zappa directs the production of the play, written by Claude Solnik, a journalist and Textile Co.’s playwright in residence.
John Torres plays Pedro Castillo, Christine Copley plays his wife Gwen and Samantha Masone plays their daughter Kaela.
Michael J.Shanahan plays a corrections officer; Michael H. Carlin plays fellow inmate Santos and Stephanie Sottile plays Liberty.
Alex Vartanian is handling lights and sound for this production, which follows a successful staged reading at Studio Theatre Long ISland.
“Pedro Castillo is Innocent” follows a Hispanic man’s journey through the justice system, mixing realism with fantasy.
The story was inspired by the case of Fernando Bermudez, who served 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
"My survival story of enduring over 18 years in a six-by-nine-foot prison cell is a provocation for reform,” said Bermudez, who now advocates and speaks around the country about the power of persistence and the need for justice reform.
He also called his story “a cautionary tale against this happening to others as a public safety problem that allows true perpetrators to escape punishment while families are ripped apart."
The presentation of the play, inspired by his case, comes as wrongful conviction increasingly attracts attention as, if not a national epidemic, a national concern.
"Wrongful convictions and the reasons they take place are a problem,” said Martin Tankleff, an exoneree, paralegal and public speaker. “Any forum that exposes the problems surrounding an innocent man's plight needs to be exposed and recognized.”
Bermudez, whose situation prompted this play, was arrested after his photo was picked by witnesses. He was not at the scene of the crime, did not know anyone there, had no history of violence and didn’t own or use a gun. The witnesses soon recanted, but Bermudez remained in prison for nearly two decades.
Solnik covered the case as a journalist at New York City weeklies The Villager and Downtown Express and then worked to exonerate him.
Bermudez was exonerated in 2009 long after witnesses recanted as a judge declared him “innocent,” not simply “not guilty.”
He now lectures on innocence, issues with the justice system and the ability to persist in the face of adversity.
More than 2 million people are in prison in the United States, by far the largest number of any nation. Even if the system functions well in most cases, that makes some wrongful convictions inevitable.
“If only 1 percent of the U.S. prison population have been wrongfully convicted, thousands of innocent people are in prison,” said Mike Gaynor, a former NYPD homicide detective who obtained key evidence used to exonerate Bermudez.
“Pedro Castillo is Innocent” looks at the Catch 22 that innocent people encounter, often given severe sentences because of their refusal to admit guilt and show remorse.
Scott Christianson, author of “Innocent” and one of the key advocates who pushed for Bermudez’s release, said some problems in the culture of the justice system make wrongful convictions difficult to overturn.
“The root of the problem is that prosecutors refuse to admit their mistakes, even when they know it is wrong,” Christianson said. “That is not justice. It is not right. Honesty means admitting you have erred.”
Gaynor said innocent people can end up convicted, especially if they lack the resources to investigate and make the case for innocence.
“Ineffective assistance of counsel, lack of qualified investigative skills and the financial inability to compete with the powers that be are generally a recipe for disaster,” he said. “Without an effective team, one may be destined to failure even when one may be falsely accused as in the Bermudez case or many of the other rape, robbery, and murder cases I have worked on.”
While “Pedro Castillo is Innocent” tells a story relevant anywhere in the nation, the location of the production, so near the actual crime for which Bermudez was incarcerated, gives the play added immediacy.
“Fernando Bermudez had nothing to do with the homicide that occurred just off Union Square,” Solnik said. “People are coming together a few blocks away from that to tell the story of how wrongful incarceration affects individuals and families.”
Solnik, a journalist and the playwright in residence for the Textile Company, frequently writes plays inspired by true stories, including one about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president in the 1860s.
The Textile Co. also presented his “Lady From Limerick” based on the true story of an Irish woman who travels to New York for plastic surgery.
He also wrote a play about Tennessee Williams and his sister Rose that the Textile Co. presented as a staged reading at Studio Theatre Long Island.
“At its heart, this is a human story,” Solnik said of ‘Pedro Castillo is Innocent.’ “It’s about family, friends and cases where the conviction itself can be a kind of crime.”
Tickets are $15 at pedrocastilloisinnocent.brownpapertickets.com. Info. and Tix are available at TNC’s website at or through the Textile Company at www.textilecompanytheater.com.
The Textile Co. is a resident theater group at Theater for the New City, presenting plays frequently based on true stories. The group, which presents shows in New York City and Long Island, has presented four full-length plays by its resident playwright, Claude Solnik.
Theater for the New City, founded in 1971, has been a North Star of New York City theater, presenting work that won a Pulitzer Prize as well as numerous Obies and other awards. Executive Director Crystal Field and a dedicated staff keep TNC vibrant and at the forefront of producing exciting, innovative work.