Burl Cain, the prison warden, gave the performance his full approval after the idea was proposed by his assistant warden and representatives of British Member of European Parliament Sir Jack Stewart-Clark.
According to the Economist, “Mr Cain firmly believes in the moral rehabilitation of offenders, and in the potential for redemption through Christian faith. He also believes that, like Jesus, some of the men here are innocent. Profits from the three early-May performances went to the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation.”
The cast was picked from Angola’s male prison population and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. At the “heart” of the performance was Angola’s Drama Club, which regularly performs, but never before outdoors in front of paying viewers.
The unique performance also had unconventional lead actors. For example, Jesus was played by Bobby Wallace, an inmate incarcerated for armed robbery, and Pontius Pilate was played by Jimmie Patterson, who was convicted of armed robbery and apparently has a talent for acting and singing.
Most surprising is that the inmates didn’t have a budget and had to make everything themselves. Everything for the production had to be done alongside their everyday prison duties: Sets and props were created with whatever the inmates had on hand, including roman shields made of prison-issue trash bins.
Inmates from both the prisons came to watch in separate stands, with men and women in different areas. Local church groups also attended, spotted easily in their T-shirts with slogans reading, “Thank God I’m Forgiven,” the Economist reported.
It seems like there were definitely some awkward moments as well as some heckling, like when Jesus said, “If any of you is without sin let him be the one to cast the first stone,” which was met with “a moment of profound silence.” Or how some in the audience kept yelling, “Go on do it,” as the character of Judas contemplated suicide.
Angola is home to 5,330 inmates, most of them serving life without parole, including the director of the Drama Club, Gary Tyler, who was formerly sentenced to death. Eighty-nine men on death row were housed not far from where the play took place.
There were three performances, the last one being on May 5.
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