Before the play, by way of introduction, some cast notes:
Wilbert Marcelin (Male Voice Three) used to tap dance on Bourbon Street, just blocks from the Iberville Projects in New Orleans where he grew up, until he became interested in girls and started wanting to “get all the things a female wants—cars, money, clothes, and jewellery”—and found that he could make $1,300 to $1,500 a day selling heroin. At twenty, he was convicted of murder and began serving his life sentence here at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. Wilbert is twenty-five now and has two children, whom he counsels to stay straight, to stay in school—the same advice he heard when he was young, he tells me, shaking his head a little at how hard it was to listen. As if to clarify, he tells me then that his father is also an inmate here. He, too, is serving life without parole.
Cherie Perez (She-Devil) was twelve years old when she was “jumped into a gang” in Texas, the Junior Mafia, who beat her with baseball bats so badly that she wound up in intensive care. In the morning sunlight here at Angola, she displays a tattoo on her wrist of a Gothic cross. Its four points signify the four drive-by shootings she’d participated in by the time she was fourteen.
I’ve come to Angola this week because of an unlikely bond I share with a photographer, Deborah Luster, who has been photographing inmates here and elsewhere in Louisiana for many years. Both of us had a parent who was murdered. Both murders happened in Phoenix, Arizona. They were both contract killings. All these years later, we find ourselves living in the same city, New Orleans, which at the time we met had the highest per capita murder rate in the country. We live two blocks away from each other—you can see my house from Deborah’s roof. When I tell this story to an inmate named Elton Thomas, who calls himself Solomon after the wise king, he tells me it’s not just a coincidence. He says it’s fate, an act of God.
In my request for permission to watch these rehearsals, I’d stated that my work is concerned with individuals—the choices they make, the mistakes they make, the working of good and evil in individual lives.
Two weeks before Easter, 2013, we visit Angola for the rehearsals and performance of an all-inmate production of The Life of Jesus Christ, a Passion play brought to the penitentiary last year by the assistant warden, Cathy Fontenot, who first saw it performed in a castle in Scotland when she was there for a conference. So far, three wooden crosses bedecked with ropes have been erected in a mound of dirt to one side of the prison’s outdoor arena. Beyond the crosses, amid a few ranks of potted bushes and shrubs and a white plywood temple, about seventy inmates are rehearsing or chatting, the men in street clothes, the women from nearby St. Gabriel penitentiary wearing jeans and light blue shirts bearing the acronym LCIW (for Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women) in black letters. Fontenot is taking a call on her cell phone. The production involves a camel, as well as several horses that now come charging across the arena at full speed, but the donkey for Joseph and Mary, Cathy learns, has just been quarantined because he’s got a communicable disease, and so maybe there will be no donkey this week. Suzanne Lofthus, a dramaturge from Edinburgh, is asking a prison employee what kinds of fruits they might find with which to adorn the table for the Last Supper scene—“Are there melons?” she asks, looking for something large enough for spectators to see from a distance—but no, there are no melons. “Grapes?” No—no grapes. Apples and oranges, that’s pretty much it—apples and oranges, plus some bread.
It is gradually dawning on me that the men working on the still-emerging sets with tape measures, levels, hammers, and saws are not hired carpenters but inmates. The photographer wearing the Texas Longhorns cap and carrying a Nikon camera is an inmate. He’s a reporter for the prison magazine, the Angolite, covering the same story I am: a man who happens to be the Son of God is betrayed, convicted, and sentenced to death. On the third day, he rises from the grave to save the world with a message not of retribution but of mercy.
A life sentence in Louisiana means retribution in the simplest sense. There is virtually no parole in the state and so no chance of mercy. Ninety percent of the inmates housed here at Angola will die on its grounds. One in fifty-five adults in Louisiana is serving a prison sentence of some length or other—the state has the highest rate of incarceration of any place in the world. You can be sent to prison for life in Louisiana for being present during a crime, even if you did not commit the crime yourself. You can be sent away for life for doing something stupid when you’re sixteen. You can be sent away for doing nothing at all, an innocent person. When I ask a few inmates about what percentage of the prisoners in Angola are innocent, one of them, Quntus Wilson, asks if I mean “statutory” innocence or “moral” innocence. Quntus and his best friend Layla Roberts were eighteen when they did something so stupid they will likely spend the rest of their lives incarcerated for it. They carjacked a woman at a shopping mall parking lot and forced her to withdraw $300 from her chequing account (they had wanted $5,000). When she gave them the money, they let her go, having first told her where she would be able to find her car—back at the shopping mall parking lot. The woman immediately called the police, who were of course there to meet Quntus and Layla at the drop-off point. “When I say dumb, it was really dumb,” Layla tells me seventeen years later. “This is what happens when you try to do a crime, but the crime is not in you.”
Statutory innocence. Moral innocence. Quntus and Layla are now thirty-six years old. Layla still carries himself like the high school quarterback he once was; Quntus is still a moody, quiet musician. Only later do I think of the woman in her car, the terror she endured on that ride to the bank. When should retribution give way to mercy? It’s the kind of unanswerable question that presents itself almost moment by moment to a visitor at Angola. When you first drive through the prison’s gates, a sign reads, “You are Entering the Land of New Beginnings.” But over the course of the next few days, I will hear again and again that the worst thing about Angola is the feeling that everything has already ended.
“It’s symbolic of dying in a hole,” Terrence Williams says. Another inmate describes a life sentence this way: “Imagine you’re trapped in a barn. Now imagine that the barn is on fire. You will do anything you can to get out of that barn. You will do anything you have to to get out of that barn.”
“A life sentence comes with an exclamation point and a question mark,” Williams goes on. “‘Wow!’ And then, ‘When this gonna end?’”
Which brings us to The Life of Jesus Christ. During rehearsals, I sat at lunch one day with a woman named Pamela Griffin, who is serving a life sentence for murder. She took a long time to get comfortable talking to me. She spoke so softly I had to move over so that I was sitting so close our legs were touching and even then I had to lean toward her with my ear cocked, my head sideways. “That jacket you have on, I could make that,” she finally said. “I could make one that looks exactly like that.” She told me that she makes all of her own clothes in prison, even her own socks. She says she had spent almost all of the first twenty-two years of her sentence at St. Gabriel resisting—“being bad,” fighting—until last year, when she’d gotten a part in the play. She says she didn’t believe in the religious aspect of it; she just did the show for the sake of doing it. But doing it changed her, she told me. She says she “reads her Bible now.” She doesn’t struggle anymore with the guards or her fellow inmates. It was something about the crowd’s reaction, the glow from the other actors, the way they were all perceived for once not as convicts but as human beings. It took a long time for her to tell me this story. She was crying when she told it to me.
Three days before the first performance, they’re rehearsing the crucifixion scene: the men are in their baseball caps and silkscreened T-shirts, some with wristwatches and even gold chains, but almost all of the women are wearing that same drab uniform of white sneakers, jeans, blue LCIW shirts, no makeup, no jewelry, their plain hair pulled back or in a clip, shapeless and frayed. Four Roman soldiers in oversized white T-shirts are overseeing the torture of Jesus, whom they now lead down a staircase toward the cross. Seventy or so onlookers are pretending to weep or jeer or stare in awe. One of the prison guards is laughing at something in the distance. Jesus, bearing his wooden cross, is now being hounded around the dusty arena by a mob of persecutors casting fake stones. On the dirt mound to one side, two other crosses have been already raised up on their hinges and two men playing thieves have been strung up, sagging there from the gibbets as if they’ve been lynched.
In the dusty arena, Roy Bridgewater explains his role, that of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who in the passion story orchestrates the plot to kill Christ. Caiaphas was a “persuader,” Bridgewater tells me. He saw that Jesus was a threat to his own power, and so he needed him killed, but he didn’t want to do it himself—no, he persuaded the Roman, Pilate, to do it for him. “The Mosaic law was about to be replaced by Christ’s law, and Caiaphas saw the handwriting on the wall, so he got people organized,” Bridgewater says. It becomes, in Bridgewater’s telling, a story of cynical expedience leading to a kind of legal, politically sanctioned murder. Bridgewater is a born persuader himself. Like Caiaphas, he has a political mind. For example, he points out that we can’t go to war with North Korea because North Korea is allied with China and we can’t take on China. He asks why we are worried about North Korea anyway, when right here at home we have this “festering problem of prisons.” Bridgewater dropped out of school, but he got his GED at Angola despite problems with math—after three tries he finally passed. He gets his vowels mixed up because when he was young he changed schools and he “missed it all.” He says he spells by visualization now. He explains to me his method of remembering things: he imagines a space, like a bunch of empty cubes on top of one another, and he puts each piece of information inside one of the cubes. He says that in his opinion, whether or not Iraq and Afghanistan were just or sensible wars, the government should have given convicts a chance to fight in them. “Let them serve five years in combat and get their freedom that way,” he says. “No one else wants to do it.”
I find that it’s very easy to get into conversations like this at Angola. During the next six days, I will frequently find it impossible to go to the bathroom or find a drink of water because on my way I will be interrupted with another story I can’t not listen to. One day, while I’m standing in line for lunch, a small man named Donald Cousan approaches me. He wears a red baseball cap on top of a red bandana that covers part of his forehead and makes his face look even smaller. I ask him what role he’s playing, and he says, “Thief Two,” explaining that Thief Two is a better role than Thief One because Thief Two went “down in the hole” with Jesus and brought him food—a lot of people don’t know how Jesus got anything to eat when he was in prison, but it was Thief Two who brought him his sustenance (and it turns out that Donald, as he tells it to me, happens to be an expert cook). He’s a compulsive smiler. He smiles at the preposterousness of almost everything he says. I don’t really want to be talking to him because I’m hungry, even for prison food, and I’m losing my place in line, but then Donald, who looks like a teenager, tells me that he’s been at Angola for twenty years, on death row for his first three. Death row, I say, and suddenly there is no point in trying to keep my place in line.
Compared to Donald’s story, The Greatest Story Ever Told is old news. Like the character he is playing, Donald was a thief. He’s here for a robbery that went wrong. He had been convicted of robbery once before, while still an adolescent, and when he was released from prison he got a job logging outside Winnfield, Louisiana—“pine, ash, oak”—he would saw the limbs off the felled trees so they could be stacked on the truck. It was a dangerous job, and one day the chainsaw cut across the top of his boot. By luck the rubber sole caught it and the blade only sliced into his big toe instead of cutting off his entire foot. Because he was a convicted felon at the time, Donald was earning only $40 a day when everyone else on the crew was making $120. He got frustrated, he says, and started carrying out robberies again. One night he decided to rob a State Farm Insurance agency. I asked him what he thought he would find at an insurance agency and he told me that his plan was to steal the contents of the safe. I asked him if he knew how to crack safes, and he said no, he didn’t even bring any tools, he just broke into the office and started banging on the safe with something he found inside. The cops came—one cop—along with the owner of the insurance agency. The cop had a gun and they started wrestling; the owner left to call for backup. It was so dark in the office that Donald and the cop couldn’t see each other’s faces. In their struggle, the gun went off—the bullet grazed the desk and went through the carpet—but no one was hurt. Their continuing scuffle sent them crashing into the next room, where there was finally some light. The cop, it turned out, was Donald’s cousin. They didn’t know what to do now. They eventually decided to fake another struggle and gradually make their way back toward the main door of the building, at which point Donald would take off running. Donald went tumbling out the front door and fled. There’d only been one gunshot so far. But the problem is that the cousin ended up dying that night of a gunshot wound. How?
You listen to such stories and you enter a kaleidoscope. You feel the teller is lying, then telling the truth, then lying, and while you go through these changes you are trying to listen to the new information he is presenting, some of which you miss while you’re trying to assess the veracity of it all. You look into the teller’s eyes and it doesn’t help. If what he says is true, then it’s a very sad story. If it isn’t true, then it’s sad in a different way.
In Donald’s version, it was not him but the owner of the insurance agency who fired the fatal second shot. In the prosecution’s version, of course, it was Donald who fired the second shot and was then freed by his wounded cousin. I tell Donald that his account doesn’t make any sense to me, and he says the owner was angry that Donald’s cousin had allowed him to escape. He is being pulled away by now, some friends are calling, and he leaves me with a simple explanation: “My town is a racist town.”
Donald grew up in Winnfield with twenty-four brothers and sisters—when he told me this, he raised his eyebrows and smiled at the absurdity of it. He’d always wanted to be a cook, he said. When he was thirteen, he was deep frying, and the grease caught fire while he was in the other room with his brother. He raced to the kitchen and tried to put out the flames but instead got severe burns over 20 percent of his body. The fire burned right through the tendons on his arm, which he had to get surgically repaired. He says he can make things in the microwave at Angola that taste better than what the cooks make with a full kitchen: red beans and rice, greens, corn. His specialty is steak and gravy—“not gravy out of a can but from scratch.” He used to participate in the prison rodeo, he says, riding the bucking bronco, but between that and football, he has damaged his neck and spine and is in chronic pain, so he had to stop. He dreams of getting out someday and finding work as a cook, then eventually starting his own restaurant. He says they’re changing the laws about non-violent offenders and juvenile convictions—he thinks the next step is to reform laws about first-time violent offenders: that would be his way out. He tells himself this, and I try to sound sincere when I say I hope so. I hope so. I say it like some clueless Dante in an Inferno with no Virgil to be my guide.
Zachary Lazar is the author of the novel Sway, the memoir Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder, and the forthcoming novel I Pity the Poor Immigrant. His work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, BOMB, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans.