- Associated Press - Thursday, December 22, 2016

DALLAS (AP) - Every Christmas show has its hiccups: An angel’s wings fall off. Tiny Tim forgets his lines. The Sugar Plum Fairy spins off stage.

But not many have to cope with a star missing the performance due to an urgent date with a criminal court judge.

The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/2hWbIg4 ) reports that was just one of the challenges of putting on a Christmas play in a women’s unit at the Dallas County Jail. All the costumes were green-striped jail scrubs. All the actors were female (even the Three Wise Men).

And all the rehearsals were monitored by a sheriff’s deputy. Of course.

The Dec. 15 performance was the brainchild of the chief public defender, who directed the show and picked the play: “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

It’s based on a book, beloved since the 1970s, that Barbara Robinson wrote about the unruly Herdman kids taking over a church Christmas play.

Lynn Pride Richardson, the defense-lawyer-turned-theater-director, decided to attempt something even more ambitious than last year’s poetry performance: a real play, with more than a dozen characters, blocking and set changes.

Richardson said she loved the play’s message: The characters you may think are irredeemable can surprise you.

“It highlights a family that is kind of ostracized by the community because they’re poor and always getting in trouble,” Richardson said. “The message is, it’s really because they haven’t been educated. And once they learn the Christmas story, it really transforms them.”

In the show within a show, “awful old Imogene” Herdman plays the Virgin Mary. Her younger sister Gladys, feared by all the kids in town for her punches, becomes the Angel of the Lord.

The jail play took hours of rehearsals, moxie and imagination. Props had to be made from things inmates are allowed to have; instead of a fake beard, the women used a Sharpie to draw facial hair on “Father.”

The inmates “had to be creative,” said Rayne Johnson, who runs Resolana, an inmate counseling program operated by Volunteers of America Texas. It tries to help women break the cycle of incarceration by addressing root causes such as poverty and trauma.

The commitment the volunteer director showed “just says to the women that they have value - and what’s brought out is they have so much more to contribute to the world,” Johnson said. “It just shows that women, when we have meaningful work, can come together and accomplish great things.”

Women in the Resolana program are largely nonviolent offenders. Many are awaiting trial and cannot afford to post bond.

The program attempts to help the women prepare for a new life when they leave jail. Sometimes that means trying new things - like acting in a play.

For Missy Keown, 27, the message of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” echoes what she’s learned through Resolana: No role is too small, everybody matters.

“And that’s so true - there’s no part necessarily bigger or more important than the others,” she said. Keown, who has been in jail since November on drug-possession charges, played the part of Maxine, a girl who narrates the pageant inside the play.

“They taught me that I’m worth not giving up on,” she said. “They made me realize it’s never too late. Every time we fall down is another time to get up.”

Before they took the stage, some of the inmates playing main characters spoke about the reality they’re facing: spending Christmas - and possibly a lot longer - in jail.

Tiffany Emmons, who had a key role in the play, said she spent Thanksgiving in jail, then her birthday, and now probably Christmas, after being arrested in early November for violating probation on a 2014 drug conviction.

“I have a 9-year-old daughter at home waiting on me, so I don’t plan at all to come back,” said Emmons, 29. “I’ll be home soon.”

The morning of the play, there was a last-minute switch. The inmate playing one of the horrible Herdmans had a court appearance. Donna Ewing, 48, awaiting trial on drug and theft charges, filled in and didn’t miss a beat.

The cast’s performance wowed the audience of Dallas County sheriff’s deputies, public defenders, jail officials, volunteers and representatives from grant programs that help fund efforts like Resolana.

“We’re impressed by the human spirit that we see in them,” said Johnson, the Resolana director. “They just really shine, even in the darkest of circumstances.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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