A passion play is staged in the exercise yard of a Louisiana Jail. Characters in middle eastern dress watch as a Roman soldier wrestles the cross from Jesus.

From Guildford to a Louisiana jail: story of Christ spreads to sinners

Inmates at Angola prison perform for fellow prisoners and the public

Will Pavia – New York
Published at 12:01AM, May 14 2012

The actor playing Jesus addressed his disciples and the audience. “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he said. “But I tell you, do not judge.”

The line was well received in this version of The Life Of Christ, set in a sandy rodeo arena within the grounds of Angola prison in Louisiana. Among the disciples were convicted murderers, and the man who played Jesus is serving 66 years for armed robbery. “Break a leg” isn’t the worst threat these actors have heard.

The story behind the jailhouse production was equally striking. The play was written by Peter Hutley, a retired property developer, and is enacted each year on his 1,000-acre estate just outside Guildford, Surrey.

His productions inspired a Scottish landowner, Sir Jack Stewart-Clark, to stage the play in the grounds of Dundas Castle near Edinburgh. In 2009 he, in turn, inspired a visitor from Louisiana, Cathy Fontenot, an assistant warden at Angola.

Sometimes called the Alcatraz of the South, the prison has 5,329 inmates, most of whom are serving life sentences without any possibility of parole. “More people die here of natural causes than are released,” she said.

To alleviate feelings of hopelessness among his charges, the warden, Burl Cain, established a prison hospice, where some could serve as carers, and an annual rodeo where some could be thrown into the air by angry bulls.

Ms Fontenot thought that the play would make a suitable addition. Sir Jack travelled to Louisiana and explained the play to 500 inmates, while Suzanne Lofthus, a Scottish theatre director, assisted the production.

Auditions were entrusted to Gary Tyler, who was controversially convicted of murder in 1977 at the age of 17.

It was hard to find Judas, a traitor. “That’s not a popular role when you’re in prison,” Ms Fontenot said. The part went to Levelle Toliver, 39, who shot a man in 1993 and said he identified with Judas. “I was a bad person; I was a liar,” he said. At the women’s prison, few wished to be the mother of Jesus, but there was fierce competition for the role of Mary Magdalene.

The audience was made up of inmates and the paying public, and the play, which ended last week, was screened for men on death row. Ms Fontenot was particularly pleased with the miracle of loaves and fishes, in which inmates stepped out of the arena and handed out bread to the audience.

She felt it offered a message of rehabilitation.