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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Prisoners Passionate for the Passion

Last week, Mark Hunter, a writer for the Baton Rouge, LA newspaper, the Advocate reported on Angola prisoners who are passionate about Jesus, literally!  They are putting on a prison passion play.

In “The Life of Jesus Christ,” the men portraying the two thieves are actually convicted murderers and the man portraying Jesus is serving a 20 years-plus sentence for armed robbery.
The two-hour, two-act passion play features 60 male actors and stage crew members serving sentences at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and 18 female actors serving their sentences at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel.  The last performance was Saturday, May 5th at the Angola Prison Rodeo Arena.

Dozens of sets, all crafted by inmates, will transform the rodeo arena floor into biblical Israel as the production describes the life of Jesus from the Bethlehem manger scene to the Jerusalem Temple to the empty Resurrection tomb.

Male and female inmates made the costumes from recycled clothing, and while Angola offenders are usually not allowed to grow beards, the men participating were given special permission to do so. The story’s realism comes alive with pigeons, sheep, goats, donkeys and even a camel.
This is also the first time male and female inmates have been allowed to be together for any similar activity, Angola Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot said.

“We’re real proud of the way they have all worked together,” Fontenot said. “This is an example of our (Department of Corrections) philosophy of moral rehabilitation that goes beyond Angola.
“They are showing they can be trusted, that they can change and are doing something that is purposeful instead of something that is evil,” Fontenot said. “Some of them have done some terrible things, but they look at this (play) as something that is holy, and they are not taking (that) lightly.”

The man portraying Jesus is a good example, Fontenot said, and inmate Bobby Wallace agreed.
“It’s wonderful trying to portray my Savior,” Wallace, 43, said. “I’m getting to do what he did — what he taught!”

Since 1996, Wallace, from the West Bank of New Orleans, has been serving a 20-year-plus sentence for armed robbery and has almost completed a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary program offered at the prison.
Serey Kong, 32, portrays the younger Mary. Born in Cambodia and brought to New Orleans as a young child in 1981, she is in her 10th year of an 11-year sentence for armed robbery and expects to be deported upon release. Tears brimmed up in her brown eyes as she talked about playing Mary.

Patricia Williams, 51, of Shreveport, plays the older Mary. During a recent rehearsal, when she cradled the body of Jesus after Roman soldiers took him down from the cross, her weeping was no act — it was real.  Williams, who is halfway through a 10-year sentence for embezzlement, said she couldn’t contain the sorrow of missing her own son who just 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. Like the man playing Jesus, she also grew up in church but strayed as an adult into crime.

“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, plays the part of Mary Magdalene. She is in her 17th year of a life sentence for second-degree murder, but has found joy in Christianity, she said, 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 (play) for me is redemption.”
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