By Judy Chia Hui Hsu
March 26, 2005
Bearing a very special gift, the unassuming men and women entered the chapel yesterday, beyond the big yard, tall fences and barbed wire.
The previous night, the world-famous Soweto Gospel Choir entertained an audience of more than 2,000 at The Paramount Theatre. But yesterday, the choir stopped in at the Monroe Correctional Complex, the state’s largest prison, for a more intimate performance.
Nearly 80 men from the prison’s close-custody unit, one level below maximum security, attended the event, the first of its kind in the facility’s history.
The singers, clad in black T-shirts and jeans, performed their numbers a cappella. As the first notes reached the chapel’s 40-foot ceilings, several inmates widened their eyes, their mouths hanging open with disbelief.
After the opening song, the crowd showed its appreciation with what would become one of many standing ovations.
The performers exuded passion, their clear, full-bodied voices distinct, yet united. The energy continued to build as dancers kicked and soloists and drummers mesmerized the audience.
Choir members swayed, gestured and stomped their feet as they sang in eight of the 11 languages spoken in their native South Africa. At the end of the performance, a few singers wiped at the sweat on their faces.
The show was titled “Voices From Heaven.” Since January, the group has given more than 30 performances across the United States.
Although they were tired, choir members were eager to sing for this audience, said Lehakwe Tlali, 18, the youngest of the group’s 26 performers.
“I’m very honored [to be here] … it’s been a long time since we’ve seen our parents. We have been on the tour for four months,” Tlali said. “I feel the people we’re performing for now haven’t seen their families in a long time, [so] for me it’s very touching.”
The choir was in Germany and Spain before its U.S. tour.
When officials at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor declined the choir’s offer to visit, Pat Graney of Keeping the Faith, a project that brings the arts to the facility’s inmates, asked if the Monroe prison would be interested.
Darin Goff, program activities manager at the Monroe facility, accepted.
“You’ve probably traveled farther than anybody that has come to perform at the reformatory,” he said to the choir. Soweto is a township in South Africa, about 10,000 miles away from Monroe.
Entertainment-related events occur about three times a year at the Monroe prison, Goff said, but normally on a much smaller scale, with local musicians or dance groups, for instance.
Although the singers have toured Europe, Asia and Australia, this is their first trip to the United States. In addition to producing a Billboard-topping CD, the singers have performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, shared a stage with rock stars such as Bono and Annie Lennox, and entertained former South African President Nelson Mandela. They’ve also raised more than $20,000 for charitable causes, such as helping AIDS orphans.
“This is kind of an incredible thing for the men,” said Chaplain Linda Haptonstall. “They need this to feel that people haven’t forgotten them.”