Film follows inmate actors in Jesus play at Angola prison
In “The Life of Jesus Christ,” a play starring Louisiana inmates, convicted murder Sandra Starr portrays the woman caught in adultery — a sinner publicly humiliated and threatened with execution, until Jesus tells her accusers, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone.”
In “Cast the First Stone,” a new 93-minute documentary that goes behind the scenes of the making of the play, a clip from a rehearsal of the scene where Starr is thrown at the feet of Jesus, is followed by an interview where she describes her life of abuse, of pulling a trigger, of killing her boyfriend.
“All my life I was rejected,” says the 41-year-old inmate in the 18th year of a life-without-parole sentence for second-degree murder. “I didn’t have any hope.”
The film, by Jonathan Stack, Nicolas Cuellar and David B. Deniger, of Higher Common Denominator Media Group, tells stories of hope that emerged as a cast of 55 male actor/inmates from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and 20 female actor/inmates from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel rehearsed and performed the play for the first time in 2012.
“I’m not the same person I was when I came in here,” Starr said. “I was my own god, and I didn’t know God.
“Now I know who God is and I trust him,” she said with a big smile. “My mission now is to share him with other people. I want everybody to feel this happiness.”
While Higher Common Denominator Media Group has not finalized distribution plans, filmmaker Stack said he hopes the film will catch on in the Christian community in a grass-roots sort of way, similar to the way the “Courageous” and “Fireproof” movies have.
Cindy Mann, executive director of the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation, a “Life of Jesus Christ” sponsor, said she and Angola Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot are planning to show the documentary at the state’s other prisons and as well as in churches and similar venues in the coming months.
The film was first screened privately March 27 for the Angola actors-inmates and premiered publicly on March 28 at LCIW for more than 200 visitors and LCIW actors-inmates and officials.
During the screening, film-makers Stack and Deniger sat among the women in the audience.
“It is never more powerful than when you show it to the people who it means the most to,” Stack said. “That’s why we chose the first screening here — not in New York or at a film festival.”
Serey Kong, who plays the young Virgin Mary, was amazed at the screening.
“For the first time in a long time they portrayed us as humans — behind the numbers, behind the statistics,” Kong said with a big smile. “It gave me hope and inspiration to be better.”
The documentary intersperses clips of play-practice filmed in April and May 2012 at various locations around the Angola prison grounds with testimonials from actors and scenes from the actual play as performed in May 2012 in the Angola multipurpose arena before a large audience.
Born in Cambodia and brought to New Orleans as a baby, Kong is in the last few months of an 11-year sentence for armed robbery — she was the getaway driver — and expects to be deported upon release. Like Starr, she said she became a Christian in prison.
In the documentary, Kong, 33, pulls from her footlocker a photo album of her family. One photo shows her 14 year-old daughter, “She hates everyone — including me — but I understand that,” she said, and a son, 10, and their father.
“My last baby, I had him in jail. He was two days old the last time I saw him,” Kong said, tears welling up in her brown eyes. “He’s 10 now.”
Older Mary is portrayed by Patricia Williams, 52, of Shreveport, who is serving a 10-year sentence for embezzlement. During the first practice of the Pieta scene, where Roman soldiers take the dead Jesus down from the cross and she cradles him in her arms, she actually wept because she so badly missed her son serving overseas.
Her sorrow was also expressed in the performances, said Bobby Wallace, who portrays Jesus. “I’m lying there with my eyes closed and I could feel her crying,” he said.
In the documentary, Williams cracks up her female friends when she tells them about seeing Wallace in his loincloth,
“When they put him on the cross and he had very little on, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’ ” she said as the other women laugh. “I’ve not seen a man with not much on for a long time.”
Cherie Perez portrays a She Devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness. In the documentary, she relates how someone told her, “Girl you look like you had a lot of practice at that,’ and later, when I was in my room I realized, ‘Yeh, I do,” Perez said. “So for me to overcome it and be who I am today, I’m letting go of my past when he refuses me.”
In emotional remarks following the screening, Perez thanked LCIW Warden Jim Rogers, Angola Warden Burl Cain and Fontenot, “for believing in us and trusting us enough to do something for our Lord, and praising us for it and making us feel like we are somebody.”
Fontenot, who first had the idea for the play after visiting Dundas Castle in Scotland where it was performed several years ago, was also pleased with the documentary.
“This shows people can change and our attitudes can change,” she said. “Rehabilitation is not just about them. It is also about re-educating the public and reassuring the public that we are all concerned about having justice work for all of us.”
Rogers said he was at first apprehensive about allowing female offenders to go to Angola and mingle with the men, but now he’s behind the program.
“I think (the play) has the possibility of changing some aspects of the prison, because a lot of women have seen what it means to those participating and they want to be a part of it and that’s a good thing,” Rogers said. “It also shows people at home that some of these people have changed a lot.”
The “Jesus” of the play, Wallace, 44, was once a New Orleans gang leader who is serving a 20-year armed robbery sentence since 1996. He became a Christian in prison, will graduate from the Baptist seminary program in May and may be paroled this summer.
“Some guys were transformed, because of this play,” Wallace said. “To actually see something positive they were a part of — they were blown away.”
A prison passion play
Warden Burl Cain, of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, said “The Life of Jesus Christ” is the only publicly performed theatrical production in America featuring male and female prison inmates.
This year’s four-hour performances, directed by Angola inmate Gary Tyler, were offered several times the week before Easter before more than 1,000 visitors and Angola inmates. The play will be performed again Nov. 16-17.
For more information on “Cast the First Stone,” a film about the making of the play in 2012, and to see a trailer, visit Higher Common Denominator Media Group’s website at http://www.hcdmediagroup.com