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Angola: A Prison Passion Play

by John E. Dannenberg

The New Testament recounts Jesus’ plight as a prisoner: “Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” (Matthew 25:36).
Spurred on by Bible-banging Warden Burl Cain of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a cast of 70 male and female prisoners from both Angola and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women – accompanied by a bevy of animals that included two horses, a lamb and a camel – put on a 3½-hour passion play, The Life of Jesus Christ, at Angola’s rodeo grounds. With an attentive audience of prisoners, relatives, church groups and ticket holders, the fully-costumed theatrical production ran for three days in May 2012.

In this unusual alliance of male and female prisoners, who were allowed to touch one another during the course of the performance, Jesus was played by Bobby Wallace, a lifer who committed a string of armed robberies, while the young Virgin Mary was portrayed by a woman who robbed a Mexican restaurant. A teenager who had killed his girlfriend and infant daughter played Joseph.

Gary Tyler, the prisoner who directed the play, has served 38 years for murder. Perhaps unknowingly, he drew parallels between himself and Christ. “Jesus was executed because of an allegation,” he said. “People vented their hatred on him.” Originally sentenced to death, Tyler was convicted of killing a white youth during a 1974 attack by a mob of whites on a bus full of black students when his high school was racially integrated. Convicted by an all-white jury, he has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

Judas, who, as a snitch, was not a popular character, was played by a murderer who talked about his character’s unbearable burden of guilt. The prisoner who portrayed Pontius Pilate compared his character to a judge who had sentenced an innocent man to death, while the actress playing Mary Magdalene recounted that she, too, had been “used” by men.

Warden Cain proclaimed, “Jesus Christ was innocent. There are innocent people in this prison. Believe me, there are.” Cain’s iron-fisted control over Angola has often been criticized by prisoners and prison reformers alike, while the ACLU has claimed Cain’s belief in Christian redemption results in religious bias reflected in the management of his prison.

Mitigating concerns about separation of church and state, Louisiana prison officials said that participation in the play was voluntary and that funds for the production were donated by individuals and charitable groups (notably, local Christian churches).
Associate Warden Cathy Fontenot opined that the production – which portrayed the life and death of Christ – did not push a particular religious message but rather one of moral redemption.

However, with over 4,000 of Angola’s 5,329 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole, they may well be inspired by Warden Cain’s crusade to have them accept Jesus as their only hope of salvation. Indeed, for those doing time at Angola, The Life of Jesus Christ may not be just an act. As for Cain, if he truly believes there are prisoners who are innocent just as Christ was, then perhaps he should run his prison, and treat “the least of these,” accordingly.

Sources: New York Times, Democracy Now!

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