POWHATAN, Va. – “A Charlie Brown Christmas” it was not.
“The Unexpected Christmas Play,” written and performed Friday by residents of the James River Juvenile Detention Facility, 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 the coed detention center west of Richmond, the play was a reflection of their lives, and the young actors know the themes of violence and hope all too well.
“It came from the heart,” said one of the play’s authors, a pretty 15-year-old whose name was withheld because she’s a minor. “I love to make people happy.”
The teen, an aspiring forensic scientist who is awaiting trial on drug and car theft charges, said she wanted to write something the other residents could relate to. The facility has held children as young as 9 on charges ranging from theft to murder.
“I wrote about what I know,” she said. “I just bring it to life.”
It took a month to rehearse the play and transform the gymnasium into a theater with a brightly decorated Christmas tree and decorative snowflakes covering the windows. The staff, including superintendent Patricia Carrington, wore Santa hats.
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 is a rapper on the side.
The role wasn’t a stretch for the soft-spoken teenager who played Deuce and helped write the play. He also got his girlfriend pregnant and hopes to someday become a famous rapper.
Though his girlfriend’s pregnancy ended in miscarriage, he said he drew on the experience to bring realism to the role. He wouldn’t say why he was in the detention center.
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, adding that he’d like to pursue a singing career.