On This Stage, Jesus Is A Robber; The Devil's A Rapist

Jun 23, 2012
Originally published on June 23, 2012 11:07 am

There are more than 5,300 inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Nearly 4,000 of them are serving life without parole. Last month, the Angola Prison Drama Club staged a play unlike any other in the prison's experience.

The Life of Jesus Christ featured 70 inmates, men and women acting together for the first time — in costume, with a real camel, performing for the general public. For the untrained actors, this production held special meaning as they saw pieces of their own lives revealed in the characters they played.

'We're Making Amends'

The Roman soldier who executes Jesus is played by Terrence Williams, a muscular convicted murderer who is serving time for his earlier role as an assassin for a drug-dealing gang on the streets of New Orleans.

The centurion's armor is castoff football pads, and his shield is cut from a plastic garbage can. His thick arms are covered with prison tattoos. Williams is in his 17th year of a life sentence at Angola.

"I was involved with a large drug trade, things went haywire, people wound up dead, I got charged with murder, you know, more than once. ... I left with my hands bloody," he says. "But here I am, in prison, playing a character in The Life of Jesus Christ, so who's to say we can't change? And I think what me and the guys are doing, this is a way to say that we're making amends for the crimes that brought us to the situation in our lives at this point."

It is not possible, during a one-day visit, to know whether these inmate actors have become penitent and sorrowful for their sins, or whether they have changed, as many are quick to tell a reporter. Some believe they are innocent.

Acting Through Past Pain

Many of the inmates interviewed, however, say their roles in this play have deeply affected them. Serey Kong, playing the Virgin Mary, is serving 15 years for armed robbery. Born in Cambodia, Kong was raised in New Orleans from the time she was 2.

Now 31, Kong has spent a third of her life in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, an hour-and-a-half bus ride away. She is one of 19 women in the play.

Kong says the role of Mary has helped her deal with a trauma she experienced as a teenager that she'd never spoken about, until now.

"They say Mary is 14, 15, something like that, and when I was that age, I came up pregnant," she says. "I ended up having an abortion. And Mary gave birth to God, and, I don't know, doing this part is kinda healing for me in a sense, with the abortion I had at 14."

The Life of Jesus Christ was staged over three days in May inside the rodeo arena at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. About 1,200 people saw the production: prisoners in jeans and T-shirts, relatives, church groups and a few curious members of the public. They applauded appreciatively in the sticky Southern heat.

The title role is played by New Orleanian Bobby Wallace.

"I been here for two armed robberies, and I have 66 years flat and I have two years left before I go up for parole," says the man who portrays Jesus.

In the Last Supper scene, Wallace wears prison shower slippers and a tunic of white muslin donated to the production, telling his "disciples" to "teach the world as I have taught you."

Wallace, along with many of the male actors, is a member of the Angola Drama Club and a student of the Baptist Theological Seminary — the first prison seminary of its kind in the nation.

Wallace says he was surprised when he was selected for the lead role during a two-week acting workshop, but he's grateful.

"Jesus was considered to be a criminal. He was being punished for what he believed in, let me say that. I identify with him on some parts, because he was condemned," Wallace says.

A Change Of Scenery

Angola Prison — also known as "The Farm" for the birthplace of the slaves who once worked this ground when it was a plantation — is unique in American penology. At 28 square miles, it is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States and has the nation's largest number of lifers.

Tucked in a bend of the Mississippi River, the rolling green fields and placid lake inside the prison boundaries can be a surprising sight for inmates from other prisons.

"When I get to leave [the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women], it's like I'm free," says Michelle Allen, who is serving a life sentence at the St. Gabriel prison as a habitual offender.

She plays the leper who's healed by Jesus. Her effusive description of Angola might not be shared by the lifers here, or the men on death row, locked up 23 hours a day in a cell block down by the river. But Allen appreciates any change of routine.

"The scenery is beautiful. Just to be able to walk and stretch, just to be able to sit on something different, to look at something different," she says.

Plus, Allen says, it's nice to be around men. "After being locked up 16 years, who wouldn't want to be around a man?" she says.

Drawing From Real Life

David Sonnier Jr. plays the devil. A bearded man with thick features, Sonnier is one of the few white inmates in the play. He's from Jeanerette, La., and was convicted of aggravated rape, now serving a life sentence. His character is hauntingly effective.

"It's a challenging role because you have to play all that is evil ... Every one of us ... we do have those demons that come to us and tell us, do this, do that, I will give you this," he says. "Basically, that's where I'm at with that scene. Just to take him and make him as unholy as possible and as evil as I can make him sound."

In a similar vein, Levelle Tolliver draws from his turbulent life to play the betrayer of Jesus. Tolliver is serving a life sentence for murder. His anguished portrayal of Judas Iscariot creates one of the most hair-raising scenes of the production.

"I was a murderer, I was a thief, I was a conniver. I was all those things, I've committed all kinds of sins ... and that's how I relate to the character which I'm playing," Tolliver says. "Because that's what Judas was — Judas was a conniver."

He says to get into character, he thinks about "a lot of the wrong things I did, a lot of the hurt I've caused a lot of people."

The Curtain Closes

This passion play was first performed on the grounds of a Scottish castle. An assistant warden at Angola named Cathy Fontenot heard about it and decided it would be a good fit. Community theater director Suzanne Lofthus came over from Edinburgh to Angola to oversee the production. She met the cast after the first day's performance. The men and women actors — separated when they're off-stage — were beaming.

"As we say in Scotland, you were pure dead brilliant," she told them.

The inmate director is Gary Tyler, who was convicted at 17 for shooting a 13-year-old white boy in a trial his advocates say was tainted with racial prejudice. He is 38 years into a life sentence.

Tyler has been president of the Angola Drama Club for more than two decades. The club normally performs a couple of skits a month for inmate audiences; there's never been anything on the grand scale of The Life of Jesus Christ.

"Hearing the response from the audience and being able to feel the exhilaration and excitement from you all, this is my response to all of you: A job well done," he told the cast.

The special circumstances of the play do not, however, allow the cast to circumvent that most familiar routine of prison life: the head count.

A beefy guard shouts out the name of their dormitory — "Oak1! Oak1" — as Jesus, the apostles, the Pharisees, the shepherds, Pontius Pilate, Barabbus and all the rest wait their turn to be counted, so the guards can make sure that no one has escaped.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are more than 5,300 inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Nearly 4,000 of them are serving life without parole. And last month the Angola Prison Drama Club staged a play unlike any other in the prison's experience. It was called "The Life of Jesus Christ," featured 70 inmates - men and women - acting together for the first time in costume - with a real camel - performing for the general public. For the untrained actors, this production held special meaning, as each actor seemed to see a piece of his and her life revealed in the characters. NPR's John Burnett reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST")

TERRENCE WILLIAMS: (as Roman soldier) Get going. Keep moving.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Roman soldier who executes Jesus is played by Terrence Williams, a muscular convicted murderer who's serving time for his earlier role as an assassin for a drug-dealing gang on the streets of New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST")

WILLIAMS: (as Roman soldier) Move. Move.

BURNETT: The centurion's armor is castoff football pads, his shield is cut from a plastic garbage can. His thick arms are covered with prison tattoos. Williams is in his 17th year of a life sentence here at Angola.

WILLIAMS: I used to sell drugs on the street. I was involved with a large drug trade, things went haywire out there, people wind up dead, I got charged with murder, you know, more than once. And here I am. I left with my hands bloody. You know, I was a hit man on the street. But here I am in prison, playing a character in "The Life of Jesus Christ," so who's to say we can't change? And I think what me and the guys are doing, this is a way to say that we're making amends for the crimes that brought us to this situation in our lives at this point.

BURNETT: It is not possible during a one-day visit to watch the first day's performance to know whether these inmate-actors, who've been sentenced to a penitentiary, have become penitent, sorrowful for their sins - or whether they have changed, as many are quick to tell a reporter. Some indeed say that they're innocent. Many of the inmates interviewed, however, say that their roles in this play have deeply affected them.

SEREY KONG: My name is Serey Kong. I play the role of the Virgin Mary. I'm doing a 15-year sentence for armed robbery. I was born in Cambodia, but I was raised in New Orleans since I was two years old.

BURNETT: Kong, who's 31 years old, has spent a third of her life in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, an hour-and-a-half bus ride away. She is one of 19 women taking part in the play. Kong says the role of Mary has helped her deal with a trauma she experienced as a teenager that she'd never spoken about, until now.

KONG: They say Mary is, she's 14, 15, something like that, and when I was that age, I came up pregnant. I ended up having an abortion. And Mary gave birth to God, and, I don't know, doing this part is kind of healing for me in a sense, with the abortion I had at 14, you know.

BURNETT: The "Life of Jesus Christ" was staged over three days in May inside the rodeo arena at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. About 1,200 people saw the production; prisoners in jeans and T-shirts, relatives, church groups and a few curious members of the public. They applauded appreciatively in the sticky Southern heat. The title role of Jesus is played by Bobby Wallace.

BOBBY WALLACE: I'm from New Orleans, Louisiana, Algiers. I'm in here for two armed robberies. I have 66 years flat. I have two years left before I go up for parole.

BURNETT: In the Last Supper scene, Wallace wears prison shower slippers and a tunic of white muslin donated to the production.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY)

WALLACE: (as Jesus) Love one another as I have loved you. No greater love than this, than a man lays down his life for his friends.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) But what then must we do now, Lord?

WALLACE: I aperse you to go out and teach the world as I have taught you...

BURNETT: Bobby Wallace and many of the male actors are members of the Angola Drama Club as well as students of the Baptist Theological Seminary, the first prison seminary of its kind in the nation created by the long-time warden Burl Cain. Wallace says he was surprised when he was selected for the lead role during a two-week acting workshop, but he's grateful.

WALLACE: Jesus was considered to be a criminal. He was being punished for what he believed in, let me say that. I identify with him on some parts, because he was condemned.

BURNETT: The Angola Prison Farm, named for the birthplace of the slaves who once worked this ground when it was a plantation, is unique in American penology. At 28 square miles, it's the largest maximum-security prison in the United States and has the nation's largest number of lifers. Tucked in a bend of the Mississippi River, the rolling green fields and placid lake inside the prison boundaries can be a surprising sight for inmates from other prisons.

MICHELLE ALLEN: When I leave Louisiana State Institution for Women, it's like I'm free.

BURNETT: Michelle Allen is serving a life sentence at the St. Gabriel prison as a habitual offender. She plays the leper who's healed by Jesus. Her effusive description of Angola might not be shared by the lifers here, or the men on death row, locked up 23 hours a day in a cell block down by the river. But Allen appreciates any change of routine.

ALLEN: The scenery is beautiful. Just to be able to walk and stretch, just to be able to sit on something different, to look at something different.

BURNETT: Nice to be around men?

ALLEN: Of course. It's always nice to be around men. After being locked up 16 years, who wouldn't want to be around a man?

BURNETT: As the actors lounge on the bleachers, the chaplain calls out their character when it's time for their radio interview.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Satan, are you here?

BURNETT: A bearded man with thick features, one of the few white inmates in the play, sits down and smiles nervously.

DAVID SONNIER: My name is David Sonnier, Jr., and I play the devil in the temptation scene. I am from Jeanerette, Louisiana. I was convicted of aggravated rape and I have a life sentence here at Angola.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST")

(LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: His character is hauntingly effective.

SONNIER: Well, it's drawn from my life. I mean, it's just a lot of the anger, you know, that I've had when I was younger and stuff. A lot of being - you know, when I was young, I was small, I was fat, pushed around, and just using that as a basis just to bring life towards this character. It's a challenging role because you have to play all that is evil. Every one of us, we all go through a time in our life where do have those temptations, we do have those demons that come to us and tell us, do this, do that, I will give you this. You know, and basically that's kind of where I went with that scene, was just to take him and just make him just as unholy as possible and just as evil as I can make him sound.

BURNETT: In a similar vein, Levelle Tolliver draws from his turbulent life to play the betrayer of Jesus. Tolliver is serving a life sentence for murder. His anguished portrayal of Judas Iscariot creates one of the most hair-raising scenes of the production.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST")

LEVELLE TOLLIVER: (as Judas) Lord, I beg your forgiveness. This burden is too much for me to bear.

I was a murderer. I was a thief. I was a conniver. Yeah, I was all those things. I've committed all kinds of sins, man. And that's how I relate to the character in which I'm playing, because that's what Judas was - Judas was a conniver.

BURNETT: I mean, you really played it with a lot of emotion. How do you get into character?

TOLLIVER: Oh, man, that's - I just try to think about a lot of the wrong things I did, a lot of the hurt I've caused a lot of people. And that's pretty much - and I can find my way in the character like that.

BURNETT: This passion play was first performed on the grounds of a Scottish castle. An assistant warden named Cathy Fontenot heard about it and decided it would be a good fit for Angola. A community theater director named Suzanne Lofthus came over from Edinburgh to Angola to oversee the production. She meets the cast after the first day's performance.

SUZANNE LOFTHUS: Well, I thought you were fantastic.

(APPLAUSE)

BURNETT: The men and women actors, who are separated when they're off-stage, are beaming.

LOFTHUS: As we say in Scotland, you are pure dead brilliant.

BURNETT: The inmate director is Gary Tyler, who was convicted at 17 for shooting a 13-year-old white boy in a trial his advocates say was tainted with racial prejudice. He's 38 years into a life sentence. Tyler has been president of the Angola Drama Club for more than two decades of his incarceration. The club normally performs a couple of skits a month for inmate audiences; there's never been anything on the grand scale of "The Life of Jesus Christ."

GARY TYLER: Hearing a response from the audience and being able to feel the exhilaration and excitement from you all, this is my response to all of you: A job well done.

(APPLAUSE)

BURNETT: The special circumstances of the play do not, however, allow the cast to circumvent that most familiar routine of prison life - the count. Their dormitories have tree names.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: All right, fellas, y'all listen up. Just like we been doing. Y'all line up in the (unintelligible) and we'll get a head count. Y'all ready?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Oak one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oak one, oak one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Oak one, man...

BURNETT: And with that, Jesus, the apostles, the Pharisees, the shepherds, Pontius Pilate, Barabbas and all the rest wait their turn to be counted, so the guards can make sure that no one has escaped.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Oak three, oak three.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And to see an audio slideshow of inmates in costume, go to our website, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.