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How Prisoners Brought 'Death of a Salesman' to Life

“Everything in that room, and everyone, was shining, just for a moment.”

I went to a play the other night. Selected scenes from “Death of a Salesman,” in a men’s prison, with an all-male cast. It was terrible and hilarious, and beautiful. There were no costumes, save for a towel tucked into one guy’s shorts to simulate a skirt. The props, meanwhile, were an unintentionally eclectic hodgepodge of the few things a prisoner can get his hands on. Mugs became telephones; soap dishes housed imaginary cigarettes; the lid of a box made for a passable grave marker. There were various levels of talent, or lack thereof, though everyone tried their best.

Each member of the cast got two hand-made tickets, covered in fancy hand-drawn lettering, to give out to friends, ensuring at least a sympathetic audience, if not an enthusiastic one. I was invited by my buddy Andrew; he was playing Willy Loman’s successful, yet cruel, brother.

We lined the edges of a small ESL classroom, its walls cluttered with elementary-school grammar posters full of cartoon animals defining various parts of speech. Our uncomfortable chairs banged up against each other, elbows bumping in the dim light, biding our time in that pre-performance electricity before the curtain goes up. (Although here there was no curtain, just a lot of jostling and positioning in the dark center of the room.)

Finally, the lights came on, and the actors began playing out their roles over a small table and two chairs. Depending on the scene, there was also a kitchen table, a number of desks or two twin beds, side by side, with a night table in between.

At one point, the script called for an audio recording of a family with a five-year-old son, in a scene where Loman’s boss is showing off the modern wonder of wire recording. In our prison version, though, as the two men sat at the table hunched over a beat-up old dictionary (supposedly the audio recorder), the boss pressed an imaginary play button and a 50-something Arab man with limited English skills bounded into the center of the room and began jumping from side to side around the table, ostensibly acting out the recording. As he moved around the two men, strange noises came from his mouth, convincing everyone in the room that he had precisely no idea what a 5-year-old boy sounds like.

At various times other students would sub in, taking over parts initially played by someone else, adding to the overall confusion. Some men held their scripts in front of them, reading their parts as a 6th-grader might a book report, while others mounted a sizeable effort to memorize their lines. The effect was an over-punctuated starting and stopping of the drama, as the actors helped each other out with their lines.

As the performance wore on, though, there emerged some unexpected talent. A good actor on this stage was like the sun emerging for a moment from a cloudy sky — seemingly impossible, yet unmistakable, and as obvious and out of place as one of the bad ones suddenly dropped onto a Broadway stage among professionals.

One in particular held me captivated. The man who played Linda. As the long-suffering wife of Loman, he (“she”) had spoken very little in the early scenes, yet communicated through his actions such emotion as to make me forget who he actually was.

Specifically, the actor was a man with severe disabilities. In the hallways or the chow hall or wherever I passed him, he walked with a limp and seemed incapable of ordinary facial expressions. He sort of shuffled along, most times alone, from place to place.

We called him “CP Bill” because most people believed he had cerebral palsy. He was not a particularly good man, either. From what I’d heard through the prison grapevine (what we call “inmate.com”), he was pretty much unrepentant about his crime.

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A friend of mine also got sent to solitary confinement because he punched CP Bill for just endlessly talking shit.

But in the final scene of “Death of a Salesman,” the same man sat alone in a plastic chair at a table, playing a role. The box-lid was propped up beside him. Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t watching an unfortunate, sad, mean prisoner, acting beyond his reach—I was watching Linda Loman, before her husband’s gravestone, asking why he did what he did, telling him she wouldn’t cry for him, even as a tear rolled down her face.

The room—full of criminals, drug dealers, terrorists and sex offenders—was as quiet as a desert cave. We were interlopers, unwanted guests, intruding on a private moment. CP Bill transformed us from viewers into voyeurs, from an audience into a quieted horde, hiding behind the trees. We had no excuse, other than that it was impossible to turn away; there wasn’t any space for us to if we tried.

When I think about it, there really wasn’t anything about this situation that should have been memorable. It was an exercise in the awful, put on by a bunch of people thrown out of society, entertaining other rejected, terrible men. Right? Except that it was beautiful and miraculous. Everything in that room, and everyone, was shining, just for a moment. Eyes were opened to a deeper thing than what we’d become accustomed to.

By play-acting roles that we were not, we saw who we really were, who God made us to be.

In prison, everything is judged, and nothing is hidden, nor can be. When we were caught, for whatever it was that we got caught for, we became twisting worms drying out in the sun, our rocks displaced from over top of us. Yet here were men who weren’t ashamed, weren’t ashamed of holding back—unafraid of what might be thought of them, unabashedly acting by mere instinct alone, praising God with their open souls, even if they were unaware they were doing so.

They enchanted us equally by being terrible and by being surprisingly good. The impossible became possible before our very eyes. All from a few broken fragments of a play about a busted-down salesman fighting to become something, even as it cost him his life, put on by castoffs dressed in uniforms with no acting experience amid a roomful of other jaded convicts.

We began to make fun of the whole thing just as soon as the lights came on. Just after we’d secretly wiped the tears from our cheeks in the dark.

Seth Piccolo, 47, is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution, Petersburg, in Prince George County, Virginia, where he is serving a five-year sentence for accessing and possessing child pornography.