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

David Sonnier Jr., from Jeanerette, La., plays the Devil in Angola Prison's production of <em>The Life of Jesus Christ</em>. He was convicted of aggravated rape and is serving a life sentence.
Deborah Luster
for NPR
David Sonnier Jr., from Jeanerette, La., plays the Devil in Angola Prison's production of The Life of Jesus Christ. He was convicted of aggravated rape and is serving a life sentence.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.