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Never Fight a Shark in Water 

8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.

NOCCA, Nims Black Box Theatre, 2800 Chartres St., 940-2821; www.nocca.com or www.neverfightasharkinwater.com

Tickets $15 general admission, $10 students/seniors

click to enlarge Charles Holt (right) performs a one-man play about Gregory Bright's (left) 27-year struggle for exoneration. - PHOTO BY TERRY DEROCHE
  • Photo by Terry DeRoche
  • Charles Holt (right) performs a one-man play about Gregory Bright's (left) 27-year struggle for exoneration.

While Gregory Bright's 1975 wrongful conviction for murder took all of 12 minutes for a jury to deliberate, his path to exoneration took years of determination and patience, including learning to read while in jail, figuring out the legal system and pushing his challenge as far as the Louisiana Supreme Court. In June 2003, he was released after more than 27 years in jail, most of it at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. That odyssey is the subject of the one-man show Never Fight a Shark in Water, which premieres at NOCCA this week, on the 35th anniversary of the murder for which he was falsely blamed.

  "A lot of people are fascinated by the story, but I am just a local guy who had no money, no contacts and got caught in the system," Bright says. "It's not a level playing field. That's what a guy at Angola used to say to me: You're fighting a shark in water. You have to get him on dry land."

  Bright and a man he did not know were both convicted of second degree murder based on the testimony of one person who had not witnessed the crime. There was no physical evidence, documents were withheld from the defense and the police tipster who testified had a history of mental illness and had multiple aliases and claimed birthdates. When the conviction was finally overturned and a new trial scheduled, then-New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan dropped the charges and Bright was released.

  While his ordeal is both amazing and outrageous, Lara Naughton, a writing instructor at NOCCA, heard the voice of a great storyteller. She met him while working with the Resurrection After Exoneration project and later approached him about turning his story into a one-man play.

  "Greg is open and willing to share his experiences," Naughton says. "He believes his story is relevant to more than just wrongful conviction. He believes in the transformative power of forgiveness. That's important: the growth from anger to forgiveness."

  Over more than two years, she interviewed Bright extensively about his life. She wanted the piece to be accurate, both factually and emotionally, and she made him retell some stories many times to get at their deeper meanings and impact. She estimates she asked him about his mother's death more than 20 times, and the repetition was sometimes difficult for Bright.

  "That was one of the two fears I had," he says. "I didn't want to die in jail, and I didn't want my mother to die while I was in prison for a crime I didn't commit. That was the worst thing in the world."

  From hundreds of pages of interviews, Naughton distilled the dialogue for the show. She recruited Los Angeles-based actor and singer Charles Holt to perform the one-man piece, and he'll tour with it. In January, when it opens at Rhodes College in Memphis, Bright will finally have spent more of his life outside of prison than inside.

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