12/24/06 — Inmates share story of holiday in their own play

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Inmates share story of holiday in their own play

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on December 24, 2006 2:02 AM

The costumes were simple, the stage sparse and the actors nervous.

Gathering their courage, 36 men donned their robes Tuesday night, worked to remember their lines and places on stage and avoided eye contact with their friends in the audience as they told their version of the Christmas story.

And as the angels celebrated, the shepherds rejoiced and Joseph thanked God for the birth of Jesus, if you closed your eyes for a moment and used your imagination, you could almost feel the cool desert night air of Bethlehem around you and forget that outside, you were surrounded by guards, razor wire and men spending their Christmas behind bars.

Performing in the Wayne County Correctional Center's recreation room, the men -- ranging from those serving two or three years to those serving two or three consecutive life sentences -- seemed to forget it, too, as they brought their performance of inmate Freddie Cole's "What A Marvelous Night" to a close by raising their voices in song, and with the help of their audience, singing "Hark, The Herald Angel Sing" and "Joy To The World."

"The gist of the play is Christmas and the birth of Christ, but with everything going on in the world at that time people missed it. We don't really know what the shepherds were talking about or what was going on at the inn that night, but I believe somebody missed the miracle that was the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ," Cole said. "It's much like it is today. If we look at it in the light of today's world, I think a lot of people today would miss the birth of Christ."

As the three-scene play opened, inmates dressed as angels pulled back the bedsheet curtains to show the prophets Isiah, Micah and Jeremiah looking down on earth as the rest of the heavenly host rejoiced in Jesus' coming birth and prepared to go share the good news with the shepherds.

The scene then changed and showed the shepherds sitting around a campfire in the hills outside of Bethlehem. As they waited for the angels to appear -- a fact unbeknownst to them -- they sat, like any other group of guys after work, eating, complaining about their jobs, swapping stories and trading insults.

For the audience -- made up of prison staff, volunteers and inmates -- it was a bit of comic relief.

But when the archangel Michael (inmate Ron Blocker) appeared, the entire room fell silent as he told the shepherds that the Messiah had been born. And the rest of the Christmas story unfolded in the play's final scenes.

"I wanted to do something special," Cole said. "I wanted to do something for God. It's all drawn from the Bible. All the scenes are referenced to Biblical Scripture."

He explained that he wrote the play, not only as a way to give thanks to God, but also as a gift to all the volunteers who come into the prison.

"I've been incarcerated for 30 years and I've been at Wayne for six," the 50-year-old inmate said. "The volunteers have been so instrumental in the growth that I've gone through, I decided I wanted to do something special for them and for God.

"I'd like to take credit for it, but I can't. It just popped into my heart. I don't know how else to explain it. It was in my spirit and came out. I'm not a writer -- I came into prison a functional illiterate and got a little education -- but when God puts something on my heart I try to get it out and put it on paper."

And it is, assistant center superintendent Chris Christman said, a true gift to everybody involved.

"I was a little nervous about it to begin with," he said. "But it's not anything playful. It's a serious and religious thing. The inmates realize that a whole lot more than people give them credit for. We have to remember these guys are human, too. This is part of their celebration of Christmas."

And it's a celebration they look forward to -- a reminder of where they came from and who they are.

"A lot of guys haven't been involved in acting or any type of drama since grade school. I think everyone in prison wants to feel some love and happiness. When we were younger a lot of the guys went to church and this is a reminder of that," inmate William Walker, 27, said.

"I've been in prison a long time and I've been in a lot of places," inmate Carter Downes, 47, added. "In my experience, it's unique in the prison system to be allowed to do something like this.

"Holidays, especially around Christmas, are difficult for people in prison and this is a way to lift spirits and lessen the tension. There's a lot of value in that."