The Black Rose

I should have brought a jacket. It was 9:30am and already 97 degrees outside with Texas swamp-level humidity, but the room I was in was aggressively air-conditioned and I was starting to shiver. The peeling white paint on the vending machine-lined walls and the aging but freshly mopped linoleum floors gave it the feeling of a well-run but under-funded hospital. I had been waiting only five minutes but it felt much longer. The butterflies in my stomach turned to the trip I had just finished. I had flown back to Houston from San Francisco the previous night where I had sung on the San Francisco Symphony’s opening night gala concert. It was a fun, starry affair. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi; California Governor, Gavin Newsom, and Metallica drummer, Lars Ulrich (a childhood hero of mine) were among the luminaries in attendance. The concert had ended with a moving rendition of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy. Alle Menschen werden Brüder – All people will be brothers. The line stuck in my head as I sat quietly at the sterile phone booth and tried not to eavesdrop on the older caucasian woman with several bibles on her lap who sat next to me.

My first trip to a prison was around Christmas time in 2017. Some of the cast of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West and I took a tour of San Quentin outside of San Francisco. We had a chance to interact with inmates and to sing some Christmas carols for them. San Quentin is one of the “best” prisons in the country. It’s the place inmates try to get to because they have such good education and work programs. There are inmates playing in the yard, building houses, and making podcasts. Though you are acutely aware that these people are there against their will, relatively speaking, they are pretty happy there. The room that I sat waiting and shivering in was inside the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, about as far from San Quentin as you can get. In 2013, Mother Jones named Polunsky one of America’s 10 Worst Prisons. Polunsky holds Texas’ death row inmates. They all live in solitary confinement. They are allowed recreation in a room about 20 feet wide, five days a week, for two hours. They have no access to phones, TV, or physical contact with anyone, ever. I was there to visit one of them. His name is Terence Tramaine Andrus.

On that trip to San Quentin I remember talking to my friend J’nai Bridges about her experience singing the role of Sister Helen in the opera version of Dead Man Walking. She told me how meaningful the whole process was to her and how amazing it was to meet the real life Sister Helen. J’nai had asked Sister Helen how she could help these people who were sentenced to die. Her response was, “Find a soul on death row who you connect with and write them.”

A little less than a year later I signed a contract with the Lyric Opera of Chicago to sing the part of Joseph De Rocher, the death row convict, in November of 2019. I thought maybe it would be good role study to write to someone who was actually on death row. I looked through profiles on writeaprisoner.com (yes, this is a real website) and picked one seemingly at random. In retrospect, I think I gravitated toward the earnestness and openness of Terence’s post. I told him I was an opera singer and that I would be portraying a death row inmate and maybe he wouldn’t mind writing me sometime. He wrote me back within a matter of days. I was nervous to open his letter. His handwriting was precise, much better than mine. His style surprised me. It was… funny. He had a way of bringing a sense of humor to everything while never skirting the hard stuff. Over the course of several months we got to know each other. I learned that he wrote poetry and painted, and that he had a daughter almost exactly my daughter’s age, who also loved to swim and to play violin, just like mine. He hadn’t seen her in two years because of a falling out with her mother. His brother had just been murdered a few months earlier and he blamed himself for not helping him find his way out of gang life. I learned that he was a murderer and that he felt sorry for what he had done, and that he has a tattoo of the woman’s name, Kim, on his leg. He also asked lots of questions. He learned that I travel the world, but don’t always want to, and that my wife and I had homeschooled our kids so we could take them with us, and that before he died I also had a complicated relationship with my father, just like Terence. We talked about meditation and poetry and what his life is like at Polunksy. He learned that I had a rough time as a kid and was arrested as a teen, and that the color of my skin and my economic situation helped me get a second, and a third, and a fourth chance. I told him I could have easily been just like him if my circumstances had been different. I sent him books and pictures, and he sent me letters with articles and poetry attached. I stopped thinking of him as a study subject and started thinking of him as a friend.

Terence mentioned a friend named Keith who had set one of his poems, The Black Rose, to a song. At first I didn’t think much of it but after he mentioned Keith several letters in a row I Googled him. It turns out Keith Allegretti is a classical composer and doctoral student who wrote a song cycle for baritone called Voices of Death Row set to poems by death row inmates, including Terence’s The Black Rose. Keith and I then connected by phone. He’s an impressive guy with a big future as a composer ahead of him. I know many of the people reading this will know a classical composer or two, but I can’t tell you how small the odds are of meeting another person in classical music are out there in the real world, much less meeting them through a mutual friend who happens to live on death row.

I stared at the bag of quarters on the counter in front of me. When you visit someone at Polunksy, you are allowed to bring a plastic bag with 25 dollars in coins, wet wipes and your ID. Nothing else. The coins are for the vending machines and for pictures if you want them. One of the “perks” of getting a visit at Polunksy is that if your visitor chooses to, they can buy you food from the machines which is apparently a gourmet meal compared to what is served day-to-day. Next to my bag of quarters was a payphone-style telephone that I would use to talk to him. I looked through the glass at what reasonably can only be described as a cage. It was about 3 feet deep and 4 feet wide. A steel door with a small rectangular opening in the middle stared at me through the glass. And then it opened.

Terence walked through the door. His hands were cuffed behind his back. He sat down as the door closed and put his hands through the small opening so the guard could unlock them. Terence is 31 years old and very fit. He was wearing glasses and a wristwatch, both of which he took off once his hands were free. He set the watch face down so he couldn’t see what time it was. He was smiling.

“HEEEEY man!!!!” My shivering and my nerves calmed down with the sound of his voice. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly but he seemed so… happy. I had never officially confirmed with Terence which day I was coming but he told me he knew I was coming that day and was ready to go. He wanted to know how Emma and Louis were doing with school (he remembered that they had just started “real” school for the first time) and how my wife Tonya was handling the transition. He wanted to hear all about San Francisco and the famous people I met. He was thrilled to hear that I had talked to Keith and that I planned on singing The Black Rose in an upcoming recital in Chicago.

We spent the next two hours talking. We laughed. A lot. I don’t think a single minute went by without a laugh or a smile. It was just like meeting an old friend for lunch. Except the friend was trapped in a cage and lunch was vending machine food. We spent a long time talking about art, his and mine. He told me he wants to sell some of his paintings and give the money to a program in his old neighborhood that helps at-risk kids. We have similar feelings about the purpose of art, that it is for healing and for expressing who you truly are. We talked about the dangers of falling into making art for the sake of one’s ego and the possibility of changing worlds, both one’s own and the greater world, through honest expression.

I should pause here to mention that Terence is not like many of the other prisoners at Polunsky. For the moment, he is living on death row with his sanity in tact. Many, many others are not so lucky. Suicide is very common, as is complete insanity. Most don’t get letters or visits and eventually don’t even want to leave their cells for recreation. One gouged his own eye out, others smear feces all over their cell and themselves, and many more just give up. Polunksy is not equipped to deal with, nor is interested in helping those with mental illness. It is a place to store bodies that have been stripped of their humanity while they wait to have their lives taken away.

Conventionally speaking, many of them deserve to be there. If you subscribe to the idea that some people should be murdered for their crimes (I do not) then these are the people you’d want to kill. Most of them have murdered people. There are also very likely people there who are innocent. Since 1973, 156 individuals have been exonerated from death row, four of them posthumously, meaning they were murdered by the state for a crime which they did not commit. That is not the case with Terence. He signed a confession shortly after being arrested. I thought about the people who Terence had murdered. According to the official report, Avelino Diaz was waiting in his car for his wife in a Kroger parking lot when Terence, who was high on PCP and cocaine at the time, planned to steal his car and ended up shooting and killing him. Kim Phuong Bui happened to drive up with her husband at the wrong moment when Terence shot into her car and killed her as well. Avelino was 31 years old, Kim was 49. Their families will never see them again.

It isn’t hard for me to imagine what it would feel like if someone killed my wife, and I don’t know for sure if I would feel differently about capital punishment in that situation. One thing is certain, killing Terence will not bring Avelino or Kim back. Nor will it change the social circumstances that put them all in that situation from the beginning. Terence grew up in one of the hardest neighborhoods in Houston. He doesn’t like to use that as an excuse, but many people like him who grow up in extreme poverty with no family support turn to gangs as their family, both for friendship and for protection. And it is impossible to to tell the story of death row in America without telling the story of systemic racism. Poverty, education, healthcare, incarceration rates, and nearly every other societal marker you can imagine are different for black people in America and have been since we started stealing people from Africa and enslaving them 400 hundred years ago. Terence made the choice to pull the trigger, and also, the circumstances that brought him to that Kroger parking lot armed, high, and ready to steal a car are the story of our country itself.

As the guard told me our time was about up I asked Terence if he thought about it often. Being killed in here. He said that he thinks about it when he makes his art or writes, but that he doesn’t want to let himself become obsessed with it. If he spends all his time waiting for death, he said, then he is really in prison. I asked him if I could share our story and he gave an enthusiastic yes. He said he wants people to understand that there is more to him than the court documents and the news reports. We had the guard take a few pictures. I hung up the phone, smiled at Terence one last time and made my way back through the four layers of security out into the sweltering Texas heat. I sat in my car for a few minutes staring at the walls of barbed wire and the beautiful east Texas greenery surrounding them. I looked at the picture of Terrence and I thought about whether I had learned anything that would help me portray Joseph De Rocher. I wasn’t sure about that, but I did know that if Terence Tramaine Andrus would be taken from this world, the world would be worse off without him in it, and I knew that I was grateful to have spent these few moments smiling, laughing, and talking to my friend. If we could find joy for a few hours in this darkest of dark places, maybe there is reason to hope.

The Black Rose

Rising through
chipped paint, rusty doors
stained steel, and cracked floors,
a black rose
rose for an encore.
Rooted by tears of spilled dreams,
and the soil of being deemed
unenviable for life’s theme;
yet, blossomed, a rose has risen.
Nurtured by the rays of hope on the horizon,
a fellow petal’s guidance,
and the pose of nature’s elegance.
Such beauty, through concrete and steel,
a black rose is living
in spite of existing.

By Terence Tramaine Andrus

You can hear me sing Keith Allegretti’s setting of The Black Rose at the Harris Theater in Chicago on November 18, and I will portray Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on November 2, 6, 10, 13, 16 and 22.

Discover more about Keith Allegretti, check out his website at keithallegretti.com.
To learn more about systemic racism, especially as it relates to mass incarceration, have a look at Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

If you want to write a prisoner yourself you can check out https://writeaprisoner.com/, or if you want to write Terence directly you can send letters to:

Andrus Terence #999578
Polunsky Unit
3872 F 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
United States