Members on Unit 29 (Death Row) at Mississippi's Parchman State Penitentiary.

The Gym: I got water leaking down, birds squawking and crapping all around, these hot flashes from the summer heat, who are all these people I do not know, they must be here for the special show. 

In the movie "The Shawshank Redemption," we learn something that we would all do well to remember. In a letter to his friend Redd, Andy Dufresne writes, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the greatest of things and no great thing ever dies." 

This is a profound statement as it gives hope the intrinsic worth that it deserves. And in doing so, shows us what Andy Dufresne knew all along: we can have hope regardless of circumstances. 

More often than not, it is in our darkest hour that we discover hope. When we are burdened by despair, we can harness that desire that a change is gonna come. In this, we find a new perspective and strength to move forward. To keep on keeping on.

We must understand that hope is not limited to times of despair. Hope begets hope. Hope is living, always seeking something greater, beyond what is present. Even when Andy Dufresne found the freedom and joy he hoped for, he still had hope to one day see his dear friend Redd again. You see, hope can be experienced beyond disparity. And in the summer of 2023, this was the case for the men on Mississippi Death Row. 

To walk on the grass felt surreal and soft compared to the concrete walkway that we were restricted to. When we were restrained, we weren't allowed to walk on the grass. Why? I don't know. 

UNIT 29: Special Event Report

A riveting performance of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" from an ensemble of individuals from 29 J-Building Death Row leaves a lasting impact. 

— Forthcoming in The Parchman Farm Chronicle

On the evening of July 15, 2023, the gym at Unit 29 at Parchman State Penitentiary was transformed into an evocative theatrical space as individuals from Unit 29 J-Building, Death Row, took the stage as first time performers to perform Arthur Miller's timeless classic, "Death of a Salesman." The talented first-time cast delivered a powerful rendition of the play, leaving the audience deeply moved and engaged.

At the center of the performance was Willie Godbolt, who played the troubled Willy Loman. Devin Bennett brought an equal measure of intensity and vulnerability to his performance of Biff Loman, Willy's estranged son. Justin Underwood's portrayal of Happy Loman, Willy's younger son, skillfully captured Happy's perpetual optimism, yet frustration and longing for his father's attention. Joseph Patri Brown's performance of Charley, Willy's neighbor and friend was noteworthy for its sincerity and compassion, and Caleb Corrothers captured the ease of a now-successful Bernard, Biff's childhood neighbor. Abdur Ambrose Sr. commanded the authority and indifference of Howard Wagner, Willy's boss, tightening the story's tension and conflict. Field Minister Mack Watts Jr. and tutor Derrick Vincent from unit 29-C supported the production as stage crew and narrator, respectively.

Left to right, top to bottom: Willie Godbolt, Devin Bennett, Justin Underwood, Joseph Patri Brown, Caleb Corrothers, and Abdur Ambrose Sr.

The actors studied the play for months in advance, meeting with Dr. Alison Turner every Wednesday to discuss character, plot, and purpose. Three days prior to the performance, Director Julie Rada guided the actors in three days of theater games, workshops, and rehearsal.

At 3 p.m. on Saturday, an audience of more than 50 people filled three rows of chairs in front of a makeshift stage against the wall of the cavernous gym. Among those attending were Parchman guards, staff, and chaplains, a team of the actors' lawyers, other supporters from the outside, and nearly a dozen other people living on Death Row. Benches turned into beds and tables turned into walls of a home; actors brought hats to signal character changes, hand-drawn paper money to be pulled out angrily from a pocket when needed, and photos of their own families to decorate the set.

The Gym: Finally, people are walking on my floor instead of birds' feet and droppings. They even turned the AC on to cool my walls. Please, if somebody can hear me, be careful with those chairs! Thank you for your cooperation. Hurry and close the door. 

The opportunity to study the play and learn about the lives of the characters gave us further experiences of empathy, compassion, humility, laughter, love, and hope—not just in what we were doing but with those with whom we were performing. It was a wonderful time of unity, fun, and inspiration, as men came together under the tutelage of Dr. Alison Turner and Director Julie Rada. Working with them was truly a blessing. Being able to learn from them and experience their passion for the arts and belief in us, helped us prepare and perform the play. This reminded us of something that has been long ago condemned and seemingly forgotten: our inherent worth and hope as human beings. 

The opportunity to perform this play was not only historic, but it set a precedent in the hearts and minds of others moving forward. By giving us the opportunity to portray these characters—to imitate life, if you will—gives others the opportunity to see themselves in us, just as we saw ourselves in the characters we portrayed. 

The Actor: I played Howard. Howard was Willie Loman's boss. Howard cared about Willie personally, but business-wise he didn't, and that led Howard to fire Willie. I felt connected to Howard's business sense because I had my own business before, so I knew the role of being a boss. The props I used in the play were a cigar made from brown paper towels, an mp3 player as a tape recorder, and a tie made from a cut-up sheet. When my scene was over, I forgot to move the table and chair for the next scene because I was still in character, and I felt like that wasn't something a boss would do.

Being able to express ourselves and share our strengths and struggles allows the world to see us beyond our circumstances. If we desire for others to see us differently, we must change how they see us. Our hope moving forward is for more opportunities to show the world we are human beings. To prove those that say we are beyond redemption and have nothing to offer this world wrong. 

If we desire for others to see us differently then we must change how they see us.

We can't just hope for a change, we must change our hope to reality. Then people will begin to see us differently. Not just what we do or say, but how we live our lives as incarcerated people. Just because we are humans locked in a cell or on Death Row don't mean we should give up. Every day, history is being made for people on Death Row, and more history is gonna happen. Like right now, we're here, unchained, no shackles. 

The Actor: To be an actor, or in a play, you have to be a creative person. That changed my way of thinking about myself because I feel for me to act out another person or character, I have to empty myself and my mind to be that perfect actor.

Only a few years ago, the policy for Death Row was that any time someone was outside their cells, they had to be restrained and escorted by two prison guards, and the guards had to have shields. Generally, my interactions with the prison staff were them escorting me in restraints to whatever destination I was headed. Handcuffs when going to the shower and the exercise yard; waist chains when going to visitation. 

My disorientation came from a decade of functioning in such a state. 

Then one glorious morning, we were no longer required by the superintendent to wear restraints to go to the shower. 

The first day without handcuffs, waist chains and leg irons had many feeling lost, apprehensive, and fearful, as they had to learn to awaken social mechanisms that had fallen into a deep sleep. Being around the prison staff without restraints made me feel uncomfortable. I was now able to walk around them, by them, and next to them without constraint. Not knowing how to approach them without being seen as a threat or socially bound. My mental state had latched on to being restrained. I would find myself in the shower awaiting the prison guard to take off handcuffs that weren't there. 

The Actor: After the play ended, I had such an adrenaline rush. All that day, I felt like I could do anything. It was one of the greatest feelings I ever felt in my life. I couldn't keep still. I didn't want the day to end. 

But oh how the floodgates opened when we were able to participate in book clubs, trauma talks, creative writing, plays, and sporting events. 

That look of hopelessness went through and through until that opened door unloosed the cries from willing and earnest hearts. 

With each passing day, humanity possesses all its pleasures of fellowship with groups of people from all over the country, and it has brought a sense of freedom like no other. 

To experience something as simple as a hug from the outstretched arms of a stranger or even the firm grip of a handshake awakens our conscience to the brightness of unconditional love. 

The Gym: This is nice. Fun people doin fun things. Never had a play by a buncha dudes in red britches done here before. They laugh a lot. I wonder how. Seems a very bleak sentence they have. I wonder where they derive their sense of joy and wonder from. 

When I used to be in my cell, I didn't think of the clouds, but now I step into the grass and I look up.

A cast of men on Death Row at Parchman State Penitentiary reflect on their performance of Arthur Miller's

Scalawag's Week of Writing: Condemned exclusively features the writing and insights of incarcerated writers facing judicial homicide on Death Row.

Members on Unit 29 (Death Row) at Mississippi's Parchman State Penitentiary.