JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Travis Russ says his decision to come to the tiny town of Pahokee draws a common response from natives. "Why would you come to Pahokee? Who comes to Pahokee?"
It's a legitimate question. And the answer is: mostly sex offenders.
This remote sugarcane farm town has become a safe haven for convicted sex offenders, often squeezed out elsewhere, due to housing restrictions or required setbacks from playgrounds and schools.
As First Coast News reported in February, initially skeptical residents have come to embrace this often despised population -- even champion their shot at a second chance.
That story helped inspire a theatre project that will soon bring the south-central Florida town to a New York stage.
Travis Russ is founder and artistic director at Life Jacket Theatre, an "investigative theater" company based in New York City. He and creative partner Amelia Parenteau came to Pahokee for a week in October to conduct hours of interviews. Those will be transcribed into verbatim scripts, and eventually performed at their Off-Broadway theatre.
Patti Auperlee, pastor of the town's United Methodist Church, says she was skeptical when she first heard from Russ. "I was really thinking, 'Is someone playing a practical joke? Is he a crackpot?'"
Auperlee's church has welcomed the town's growing community of sex offenders, many of whom reside at a Christian-based recovery ministry called Miracle Village. She and others in her church fervently believe sex offenders deserve a second chance, like any other criminal – or any other sinner.
"There is power in a second chance," she says, "and that's what our country's made of."
It's not always a popular view, but it has brought the church to the attention of outsiders -- including Russ.
"What are long-lasting consequence of committing a sex crime in America?" Russ says when asked about his interest in the Pahokee story. "That's a tough story to tell, and it's a tough story to hear."
Difficulty aside, Russ believes it's an important story. "The second day -- maybe the first -- I knew there was something special here," he says, standing on the banks of the town's iconic natural feature – Lake Okechobee. "It's such a compelling story -- and really is an American story. It's about hope, faith, forgiveness, and family."
That is not the story most people associate with sex offenders. Nor is what has emerged as the play's central storyline: love.
That thread is an ironic footnote to the original First Coast News story. In the February piece, Pastor Auperlee joked how trusting she'd become of the former offenders, even giving them her house key to set up an after-church dinner. "All of a sudden [my husband] looked at me and said, 'Do you realize our daughter is home – alone -- with 11 sex offenders?'" she laughed. "And I was like, 'Huh. Okay.'"
As it happens – her oldest daughter, now in her 20s, is dating a sex offender.
"Their story is so interesting," says Parenteau, of the relationship between Auperlee's daughter and Chris Dawson, a registered sex offender featured in the February FCN story. "We think it's going to be a pretty special part of the whole story we're telling here."
Chris Dawson was arrested four years ago -- when he was 20, and his girlfriend, unbeknownst to him, was just 14. Dawson says she lied about her age, and the pair had dated openly for months. It's what is sometimes called a Romeo & Juliet case. Regardless, Dawson is a registered sex offender for life.
"I don't want anyone dating my daughters," laughs Auperlee when asked about the new relationship. "But they're sweet, and Chris is great, and his family is great, so I told them it's OK. He's a good kid."
Dawson says the fact that Auperlee has some experience with sex offenders helps. "She's dealt with sex offenders since she's been out here, so it's not, 'Oh! you're dating a sex offender,'" he explains. "It's, 'OK, it's Chris.' Yes, he's a sex offender, but we know him already."
Chris has grown comfortable telling his story, both to caution others and appeal for redemption. And he likes the idea of being portrayed on stage.
"I just hope they cast a good actor for me," he jokes. "Some cool hipster guy, with great hair and a good body."
Others tell their story with reluctance. Chad Stoffel, who was jailed for an affair with one of his teenage students, finds it hard to broker his role as a cautionary character.
"It is still hard, it is still hard," he says. "Like every time I see myself -- in video, or even in the mirror -- I think, 'Man, Chad, you screwed up so bad. How could you have done what you did? How did you become such a failure?'"
While the stories surrounding sex offenders and their crimes are often told in stark black and white terms, Russ says the narrative of a recovering offender does not lend itself to easy answers. "It's deep and complicated and compelling" he says.
What the Pahokee stage play will look like isn't clear. Both Travis and Amelia say the hard work is just beginning, as they comb through thousands of pages of transcripts. But Travis says the focus is already determined.
"I can tell you this show is about what it means to be American, what It means to make a mistake, and what it means to seek forgiveness."