DENVER — At the University of Denver's Newman Center for the Performing Arts, A Christmas Carol's story of redemption transcends the stage with the help of inmate 146419.
“When I’m performing it’s my time to get away from being a number," said Jamilyah Nelson, while adding wrinkles to her face with a silver pencil.
Nelson is incarcerated at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. She's also playing the part of boy scrooge, almost married scrooge, porterly businessman, and mystical ghost.
“I haven’t found anyone that’s taking a show from the prison and bringing it to the public," said the Department of Corrections Executive Director, Dean Williams.
He believes plays like this will create purpose, hope, and community connections for when many of the women get out.
“This is an incredibly big deal as you can imagine to bring folks who are incarcerated out to the public to perform," said Ashley Hamilton, the founder of the University of Denver's Prison Arts Initiative.
With her work in Colorado's prisons, she is asking the question "are people only the worst thing they ever did?"
Nelson hopes the answer is no.
"I've taken a life," she said. "I was in a domestic violence situation, relationship. And I took my victim's life out of self-defense."
According to the probable cause statement written by a Denver Police Officer in 2007, Nelson said during an argument with her boyfriend she used a kitchen knife to stab him in the chest.
Two years later, a jury found her guilty of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to life without parole, but during the course of play rehearsal, new lawyers reached a plea agreement based on a post-conviction appeal.
“It’s extremely rare," said Nelson's attorney, Eric Klein. " And I think that Ms. Nelson is a special case and she’s a special person and I think the prosecution really recognized this is a different kind of case than what they usually see."
Part of Klein's argument was that Nelson was a victim of domestic violence.
If the judge agrees to the plea on January 27, her conviction will be vacated and she'll plead guilty to second-degree murder.
She could get out of prison in less than a decade.
And when she does, she said her life on the outside will have been changed by a play.
“It means everything," said Nelson. "We talk about it off stage all the time how we’ve taken from society and just to be able to give them something back. We’ve given our all for this. And to give something back means so much."
For many of the cast and crew, the two hours they spent in rehearsal was the first time they'd laughed since coming to prison.
For Nelson, it was the first time she trusted people in 12 years.
"I didn’t want to interact with anyone else because I didn’t want to be hurt and I didn’t want to hurt anyone else," she said. “It’s just amazing to have people there for me and allowing them to be there for me is the hardest thing but I’m learning to do that."
In every performance of the Charles Dickens classic, Scrooge becomes a better man.
"I am not the man that I was," yelled the actress and inmate, Demika Rogers on the stage. "And I will not be the man that I must have been but for this intercourse!"
The 5th of 11 performances was at the prison, for their families.
Nelson's family was there, and her mom spoke to the entire cast and crew after the show.
“I felt the change welling up in me that a change can be made," said Zolo Anderson. "Anybody can change. So I hope we take away from this that these women can change."
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