Passion Play Hits Hearts of Cast

Article excerpt

"The Life of Jesus Christ," a three-and-a-half-hour play with a cast of 70 inmates, made its debut at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

On a December night in 1991, the man who would later play Jesus committed a string of armed robberies in New Orleans. Ten years later, the woman who would play the Virgin Mary robbed a Mexican restaurant across town. A month after that, a teenager killed his girlfriend and infant daughter. He would go on to play Joseph.

"The Life of Jesus Christ" -- a three-and-a-half-hour play with a cast of 70, plus a mule, two horses, a lamb and a camel -- made its debut last week in a three-day run from Thursday to Saturday at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

The production featured men from Angola and women from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, who traveled an hour and 40 minutes by bus each morning from St. Gabriel to this 18,000- acre, or nearly 7,300-hectare, prison farm on the Mississippi River. Much of the cast was in rehearsal on and off for two years.

That is a long time by many standards, but not by the standards of Angola. The average sentence at the state penitentiary is 93 years. Of the 5,329 men in prison, over 4,000 are serving life without parole. Less than 200 are expected to ever leave.

Beyond Angola's staggeringly high number of lifers, there is much that is distinctive about it, including a twice-yearly inmate rodeo that is open to the public.

But "The Life of Jesus Christ," which was performed in the rodeo pit before a reactive audience of inmates, relatives, church groups and ticket buyers, was not quite like anything that has come before. It was a fully costumed and staged theatrical production with musical interludes. It was also the first time that so many male inmates had worked for so long with so many women, who said they had difficulty getting used to the fact that they were allowed to touch the men.

The sets, made of found material like PVC pipe and bicycle tires, were designed by Peter Rubens, a building contractor and artist who has sculptured statues for neo-Classical casino lobbies and enjoys painting in the style of the old masters. He shot a former employee in 2008.

The play was directed by Gary Tyler, who has been in the prison for 38 years. He is not unknown to the outside world.

Mr. Tyler was convicted of murder in 1974 -- a mob of angry whites attacked a bus full of black students; a young white boy was shot dead. Mr. Tyler, who was 16 at the time and on the bus, was charged with killing him. At the time, he was the youngest prisoner on death row (a sentence later changed to life). A U.S. appeals court found that his trial was "fundamentally unfair" but for procedural reasons did not allow for a new trial. Calls for his release have never ceased.

Mr. Tyler, who has long run the prison's drama club, does not talk about the circumstances that brought him to Angola. He will talk about the themes of the play.

"Jesus was executed because of an allegation," he said. "People vented their hatred on him."

A spiritual but not particularly religious man, Mr. Tyler recounted the instructions he gave to the cast -- which he picked himself -- especially the Muslims and nonbelievers, and the male actors who were reluctant to play a snitch like Judas. You were acting a role when you were on the streets, he told them, and you were judged based on someone you were not. Use the same energy behind that deception for the role, one that you can control.

Levelle Tolliver, a talented actor who shot a man in the head in 1993 and played Judas, talked about his character's unbearable burden of guilt. Jimmie Patterson, who played Pontius Pilate, discussed the degree to which his character, whom he compared with a judge, was blameworthy for sentencing an innocent man to death. Sandra Starr said she understood her character, Mary Magdalene, because she, too, had been used by men.

Such resonances were not played down by prison officials. …