ANGOLA — Lawrence Jenkins, a convicted killer serving a life sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for murder, is watching his actors and has a concern.
“Look at them. They have their backs to the audience. They have to be more audience-conscious. We have to work on that,” Jenkins, 57, said Thursday afternoon during a technical rehearsal for the play he is directing.
That play, “The Life of Jesus Christ,” is a three-hour production that depicts the complete story of Jesus’ life and resurrection.
Thursday is the second to last day before the first of two performances open to the public slated for Saturday and Sunday at Angola’s Multi-Purpose Arena.
The actors Jenkins are directing are male inmates at Angola as well as female inmates from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel.
“Today is our first day working with sound,” Jenkins said while sitting in the arena seats reserved for the public.
Jenkins, who grew up around Dillard University in New Orleans, has been housed at Angola for 34 years or as Jenkins said, his “entire adult life.”
Jenkins started acting in the Angola Drama Club after he arrived at 22 and started directing Angola plays in 1985.
Although this year’s production of the play is the third for the prison, the production is the first of the three directed by Jenkins.
Jenkins said he couldn’t direct the production without his directing adviser, Suzanne Lofthus.
The play came to Angola from Edinburgh, Scotland, where Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot saw it performed at Dundas Castle six years ago.
Lofthus, artistic director of Cutting Edge Theatre Productions of Edinburgh, has directed more than a dozen productions of the play and has led the three productions at Angola.
“I sort of mentor the inmate director,” Lofthus said during a rehearsal lunch break Thursday.
Fontenot and Lofthus said inmates at both prisons audition for the roles in the play.
The inmates are not just acting and directing. They work behind the scenes building sets, making costumes and working with the sound, lights and music.
“There are about 150 inmates involved in the entire production,” Lofthus said. The male inmates have been rehearsing for four months and the women have been rehearsing for two months.
Of those, about 90 are in the cast and 24 are women. Sandra Starr, 41, has played the part of Mary Magdalene all three years. Starr has been behind bars for 18 years, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. Starr said at first she signed up to participate in the production for fun.
Then something happened.
“I started to see some of myself in the role. That made me face the things that happened in my life. I had to deal with things that surfaced and I think it makes me a better person,” Starr said.
In the play, Mary Magdalene was caught committing adultery and was publicly humiliated and threatened with execution.
Although “The Life of Jesus Christ” is a traditionally Christian story, Lofthus said there are all kinds of religions and denominations represented in the production.
“Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics. Denominations and labels disappear,” Fontenot said.
Timothy Guidry, 51, has been at Angola for 21 years, serving a life sentence for aggravated rape. Guidry has been performing in the play since it began and has learned 17 roles. He’s playing The Possessed Man and Barnabas this year.
“I acted for two years in high school,” Breaux Bridge native said Thursday.
Guidry’s biggest challenge?
“Satisfying the producer,” Guidry said.
The producer of the play is Gary Tyler, head of the Angola Drama Club for more than 30 years and the inmate director of the play for the first two years. Tyler has been at Angola for 39 years serving a life sentence for murder.
“It gives everyone a sense of purpose and in some cases it allows someone to discover their potential,” Tyler said.
There is a moment during the play when some of the actors leave the stage, spread out into the audience and pass out pieces of bread.
“This play is about so many things, deep things,” Fonenot said.
Fonenot said the audience looks at the play and sees it with a separation created by a gate. But then some of the inmates spread out in the audience with the bread.
“That’s like re-entry. But the play really transcends incarceration. I think the play allows the prisoners to talk to each other about their own personal journeys,” Fonenot said.
Performances begin at 10 a.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday. The gates open at 9 a.m. and tickets are $10.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, to correct the name of the women’s prison.