Panama inmates say Passion play roles have inspired them to make a new start

By Ana de Leon

Panama City, Apr 6 (EFE).- Abraham Escobar stands at the entrance to his cell and puts on a brown tunic made by other inmates, just minutes before stepping into his role of Jesus of Nazareth at the Tinajitas Detention Center outside Panama City.

“I’m not worthy, as Saint John the Baptist said. “I’m not worthy of representing the life of Jesus,” the 27-year-old Escobar, who is serving a three-year prison sentence for robbery, said in an interview with Efe.

Escobar was part of a cast of 29 inmates who took part Wednesday in a Holy Week play inspired by Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “Passion of the Christ,” which depicts the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Scourging at the Pillar, the crucifixion and death of Jesus and his resurrection.

Dressed in ragged garments and cardboard sandals, the inmates reenacted Jesus’ final hours in the prison’s small patio, having spent weeks preparing for their respective roles and learning some acting basics.

Most told Efe that bringing these scenes to life helped them reflect on their crimes and accept forgiveness grounded in love, while also instilling in them a desire to leave behind the mistakes of their past.

“(The play) has taught us that forgiveness exists, and Jesus in the Passion of Christ teaches us that he could forgive out of love,” Rafael Saez, 36, who has been imprisoned for a year and a half for money laundering, told Efe.

Saez, who introduced the Passion play to an audience of prison officials and some of the inmates’ family members, said that during rehearsals the cast repeatedly talked about the need to “learn to love, to forgive and be more empathetic.”

“In speaking about the word of God and how he speaks to us about the reasons why he came to die for us, we think carefully about them and bring that teaching to anyone who will listen to us,” the director and script writer of the play, 52-year-old Jose Garcia, told Efe.

Garcia, who has spent three years behind bars for sexual abuse, said teamwork was the most important aspect because everyone felt they were “experiencing those moments.”

The play has served to unite the prison’s 293 inmates, which is an unusual occurrence, one prison employee told Efe, adding that many participated by weaving the costumes or making the cardboard helmets and swords used by the actors depicting Roman soldiers.

The four-act play “has had a very positive impact on the population because there’s been a lot of peace this month and you feel … there’s a healthy coexistence inside the prison,” the director of the Tinajitas detention facility, Yesenia Nuñez, told Efe.

Thanks to that cultural and religious activity, whose rewards also include sentence reductions, “the inmates put aside all those mistakes they made in the past,” Nuñez said, noting that the staff has been witness to the positive impact on their behavior.

Garcia, for his part, said afterward that the participants gave a flawless performance in what was their first appearance in a play, acting out their roles in an area of the prison where inmates sleep on hammocks hung from the ceiling.

At its conclusion, the 29 actors soaked in the applause of the crowd while prostrating themselves before the resurrected Jesus.

“If they all get out of here tomorrow, God willing, may they always have that charisma (of Jesus),” Roxana Burns, Saez’s mother, said while clinging to her son’s arm. EFE


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