All the Jail's a Stage

Missouri inmates are performing tales of murder, greed and insanity -- and learning how to leave their old lives behind

Schell is 56, with a strawberry-blond beard, glasses and very little hair. He's been in prison since 1990 but won't say why. His large belly is covered by a T-shirt that reads, "The Hamlet Project Act III-2001." When Prison Performing Arts produced Hamlet in Pacific, Schell played Guildenstern and a gravedigger. He was transferred to Bowling Green last year and was selected for the lead role in The Gospel at Colonus, an adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus.

"The Gospel at Colonus is taken and put into a black Pentecostal church, circa 1950s," Schell explains. "When it was on Broadway in 1984, Morgan Freeman had the lead role. He had the character of the preacher. So Morgan Freeman and I have something in common."

The opening scene begins with Schell preaching from the "Book of Oedipus" and recounting the last days of the man whose life was destroyed because he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.

Toni Sullivan practices the part of fiery Lady Macbeth.
Jennifer Silverberg
Toni Sullivan practices the part of fiery Lady Macbeth.
Bratt Jones and the rest of the choir rehearse for 
The Gospel at Colonus at the medium-security 
men's prison in Bowling Green.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bratt Jones and the rest of the choir rehearse for The Gospel at Colonus at the medium-security men's prison in Bowling Green.

"We begin with the Sunday service," Wilcox announces and then moves off stage. Schell lumbers across the room and takes his place behind a music stand.

"Brothers and sisters, I take my text this evening from the Book of Oedipus," Schell blusters with an authentic Southern accent. (He's originally from Fort Worth, Texas.)

"Oedipus, damned in his birth....."

The choir chimes in with affirmations of "Amen!" and "Uh huh!"

"Damned in a bloody show with his own hand....."

"That's right," someone shouts out from the choir.

Schell continues, gesturing into the air with a conviction that Elmer Gantry would envy. "Pitifully snared in the net of his own destiny."

The drums, guitars and keyboard fire up as the choir sways back and forth, eyes closed, singing: "Don't go away, oh Father, I pray."

"Who will be kind to me?" asks Hayward Silas Jr. in an exaggerated voice.

"Don't, don't. It sounds silly," Wilcox says. "Just speak it."

She's not harsh, but she's not gentle either. He tries again and delivers the line perfectly.

"Who will be kind to Oedipus this evening and give alms?" Schell asks. "Who will give alms to the wanderer though he asks little and receives still less?"

The play begins with Oedipus arriving at Colonus, the place where the gods have told him he will die. He has been wandering blind from town to town for twenty years after being kicked out of Thebes for his unspeakable crime.

"People were frightened of Oedipus," Wilcox explains. "The townspeople of Colonus didn't want to let him in because he was cursed. One of the actors said to me, 'He's like a parolee.'"

Schell admits that sometimes he feels like Oedipus. "I am the accursed, the black sheep of the family," he says. But unlike Oedipus, whom the gods marked for failure before his birth, Schell says, "I'm here because of decisions I've made, not because of decisions that others made.

"Sometimes you're so smart, you'll trip over dollars trying to pick up pennies, and it comes back to bite you in the ass," he jokes.

Chris Harris, who also was transferred from Pacific to Bowling Green, splits the role of Oedipus with three other actors. Harris hopes that just as society forgave Oedipus, the parole board will one day let him free again. When he makes his first appearance before the board in 2006, he will have served nineteen years of a life sentence.

"That's the point of taking a person out of society for a number of years. Hopefully you will begin to work on yourself, so that when you come back, you will appreciate freedom," Harris says. "What Agnes has brought to us is something to help us develop that, to develop the discipline. And to see that people are intelligent, that they do have talents that they can develop."

Oedipus brought a blessing to Colonus, the place where he was forgiven and where he forgave himself. "A former inmate does that too," Wilcox says. "He or she can be an example of change and reformation and resurrection to the people around him or her. And he serves as a warning and a reminder that life is very fragile. That almost any of us in our work or in our daily lives can take an action that will seriously damage society."

Even though Oedipus and Hamlet both die, Harris explains, "There's an inference given that hope is still very much alive for good to continue, and even though these tragic heroes stumbled and maybe fell, that their examples will help others in the future make better decisions."

Act IIManuel Johnson sits at a table outside the Saint Louis Bread Co. in the University City Loop. He has just finished an eight-hour shift as a delivery-truck driver for a furniture company.

Nine months ago Johnson became a free man after serving seventeen years for first-degree assault. The Poplar Bluff native decided to make St. Louis his home because there are more jobs here, and for ex-cons, jobs are hard to find.

Since returning to the real world, the 38-year-old Johnson says, he's been bewildered by how much life has changed. These days, Johnson observes, everyone talks on a cell phone, women are more forward and at the grocery store there are 200 brands of cereal to choose from. "I just wanted corn flakes," he says of his first trip to the store.

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