- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

POWHATAN, Va. — “A Charlie Brown Christmas” it was not.

“The Unexpected Christmas Play” was written and performed recently by the young residents of the James River Juvenile Detention Facility, which has held children as young as 9 on charges ranging from theft to murder.

The original holiday play tells the story of a teenager named Deuce, who would rather pursue a music career than deal with his pregnant girlfriend, Asia.

For the 46 residents of this coed detention center west of Richmond, the play was a reflection of their lives. The swollen belly straining against Asia’s petal-pink T-shirt might have been a basketball and the door to her “house” might have been made of paper, but the young actors know the themes of violence and hope portrayed in the play.

“It came from the heart,” said one of the play’s authors, a 15-year-old who said she’s been awaiting trial for six months on drug and car-theft charges. “I love to make people happy.”

The aspiring forensic scientist, who served as the play’s director and narrator, said she wanted to write something the other residents could relate to.

“I wrote about what I know,” she said. “I just bring it to life.”

One month of rehearsals and planning by the residents and staff helped transform the gymnasium into a theater with a brightly decorated Christmas tree and decorative snowflakes blanketing the windows. A large sign reading “Welcome to JRJDC, Happy Holidays” greeted visitors, and Christmas carols lilted from the stereo. The staff, including superintendent Patricia Carrington, wore Santa hats and big smiles.

In the play, Deuce eventually accepts responsibility for his life after his best friend is killed in a drive-by shooting. He finds religion, marries Asia, gets a steady job and raps on the side when he can.

The role wasn’t a stretch for the soft-spoken teenager who played Deuce and helped write the play. He hopes to someday earn fame as a rapper and got a girlfriend pregnant. And although that pregnancy ended in miscarriage, he says he drew on the experience to bring realism to the role.

The performance touched Henrico County Juvenile Court Judge Stuart Williams, who said he remembers both of the play’s authors from his courtroom.

“I thought it was very emotional,” he said. “I’m impressed with how far they’ve come. Most of these kids will come out all right.”

The production also gave the dozen or so residents who performed a chance to show off newfound talents.

One 15-year-old, who said he’s charged with grand larceny, had never sung in front of a group before arriving at James River. During one of the play’s musical numbers, his clear, strong voice earned loud applause from the audience.

“I used to sing in the shower,” he said later, beaming in the wake of praise from Miss Carrington. He now plans to pursue a singing career.

After handwritten Christmas cards had been passed out to the audience, who joined the cast in singing “Silent Night,” the performance appeared to be over. But then the booming strains of a holiday rap song exploded from the speakers as a man dressed in a Santa outfit burst into the gymnasium.

As Santa passed out candy to the residents, Deuce dragged Miss Carrington to the front of the room and the cast jostled around her, trying to teach her some dance moves. The sounds of raucous laughter and hip-hop music bounced off the cement-block walls, and even the most sullen of residents broke into grins as Miss Carrington danced around, giggling.

And, in a most unexpected way, it suddenly felt like Christmas.

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