"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
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 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
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. …