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In the biblical accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus Christ is hung on a cross between two thieves. In The Life of Jesus Christ, a passion play recently performed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the thieves are actually convicted murderers and "Jesus" is serving 20 years for armed robbery.
In the first prison production of its kind in America, 60 men serving sentences at Angola and 18 women from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel performed the four-hour play in the Angola prison rodeo arena for hundreds of visitors last month. It's the first time male and female offenders were allowed to be together, said Angola's assistant warden, Cathy Fontenot.
Once known as "America's bloodiest prison," Angola is now a model of change. Located approximately 140 miles "up the river" from New Orleans, the 18,000-acre maximum-security prison is enclosed by razor-ribbed fences, watched by armed guards, and patrolled at night by hybrid wolves. Six "camps" house over 5,300 offenders. Nearly 4,000 are serving life sentences. Prison chaplains estimate between 1,200 and 1,500 are born-again Christians.
"This is an example of our philosophy of moral rehabilitation that goes beyond Angola," Fontenot said. "They are showing they can be trusted, that they can change and are doing something that is purposeful instead of something that is evil."
The dusty arena was transformed into biblical Israel with dozens of sets, all crafted by inmates, from the Bethlehem manger to the Jerusalem temple to Golgotha. Inmate-crafted costumes were colorful and realistic for the time period. Recycled football helmets became headgear for Roman soldiers. Swords and spears were made of cardboard. A lamb accompanied the shepherds and a camel and two horses accompanied the wise men.
But behind the theatrical passion play, many actors said, is a real story of redemption inside the wire. Bobby Wallace, 43, portrayed Jesus. Raised in New Orleans, he began serving in 1996 a 20-year-plus sentence for armed robbery. "It's wonderful trying to portray my Savior," Wallace said. "I'm getting to do what He did, what He taught."
Wallace said he grew up in a Baptist household but "found God" when he began serving time in Angola. He's nearly completed a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary program.
Two female inmates portrayed Mary the mother of Jesus, one as the younger Mary and one as the older Mary. The younger Mary, Serey Kong, was born in Cambodia and brought to New Orleans as a baby. She's in her 10th year of an 11-year sentence for armed robbery and expects to be deported upon release.
"This is like the gospel coming to life for me," Kong, 32, said as tears brimmed up in her brown eyes. "I grew up a Buddhist and never heard the words Jesus or God until I got to St. Gabriel and was introduced to Him through Kairos," Kong said. Kairos is an interdenominational Christian prison ministry at 351 prisons in 31 states, including the women's correctional institute in St. Gabriel.
Patricia Williams, 51, of Shreveport played the older Mary. During one of the last rehearsals, where Mary cradles the body of Jesus after Roman soldiers take him down from the cross, Williams actually wept. Halfway through a 10-year sentence for embezzlement, Williams said she couldn't contain the sorrow of missing her own son who recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.
"I haven't seen my children for five years and I feel like I've failed them by coming here," she said, wiping away more tears. She also grew up in church but strayed into crime as an adult.
"It took me coming here to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ-and this is no jailhouse religion," Williams said. "We've all done something to come here but we are all doing this [play] to show people we are capable of change behind the barbed wire."
Sandra Starr, 40, from Monroe, portrayed Mary Magdalene. In her 17th year of a life sentence for second-degree murder, she says she's found joy in Christ and is enrolled in seminary courses. "This is healing for me," Starr said. "I was used and abused by men just like she was. This for me is redemption."
Gerald Preston, 41, is "Thief 1" who mocks Jesus. Serving a life sentence for murder, he said he's a Christian also. "My sins-He's forgiven them-in real life," Preston said. "I wanted this role just so I could talk to Him personally."
Cherahkei Parker, 25, is "Thief 2." He is from Baton Rouge and just arrived at Angola last May where he'll serve two life sentences for two murders. He is not a Christian but wanted this part so he too could talk to Jesus. "We deserve what is being done to us and I ask Him to take me with Him to heaven," Parker said. "If I had the opportunity to talk to the real Jesus I would ask Him to please forgive me. What a blessing that would be."
The play was written by Peter Hutley of Surrey, England, but was modified by the Angola Drama Club and its director Gary Tyler. "Something like this never comes out of a prison and has never been done with this magnitude before," Tyler said. "This shows we all go through life and make mistakes but there is redemption in this story, and also in our lives. We can change."
The play came to Angola from Edinburgh, Scotland, where assistant warden Fontenot saw it performed at Dundas Castle. Suzanne Lofthus, artistic director of Cutting Edge Theatre Productions of Edinburgh, shuttled from Scotland to Angola for a year to see it completed.
"What amazes me is where Jesus proclaims freedom to the captive. These are the captives proclaiming freedom," Lofthus said. "If you can find freedom in Christ here you can find it anywhere."
-Mark H. Hunter is a writer in Louisiana