Remember that controversial The Passion Play in New Jersey in 1997, where bigots derided the show because, at certain performances, the man playing Jesus Christ was black?
The actor in question Is Dez (aka Dezi Arnaz Giles), an African-American performer alternating the role of Jesus with white actor Joseph Bukovec. The 83-year-old show starts previews Mar. 7 and opens Mar. 14 for a run through Apr. 24. Less controversy and more fun is expected this time, though, because the 18 musical numbers have been newly choreographed by Linda Telesco of Spirit Dance Company. Co-Director Eric Hafen said in a statement he hopes to introduce more dance in the show over the next three years.
Racism hasn't been a problem this year, though ironically, Dez had his worst troubles after last season's production ended. According to spokesperson Francine Trevens, Dez's ex-wife read a number of news stories about the "Passion Play" controversy and assumed he was making a lot of money doing the show. She then started going after him for back child support. Their dealings were amicable, but soon the state went after Dez and put him in jail for a month. Says Trevens, "Yup, you can title the story, `Former Inmate Back On The Jesus Trail.'"
Last year, the "black Jesus" story got so big, it reached John Cardinal O'Connor of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, who spoke out (March 9, 1997) against those who oppose a black actor playing Jesus in the religious pageant. "Whatever our ethnic origin or color, we are the likeness of God," said O'Connor. "[We should] not reject someone because he is black playing Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was a Jew...perhaps some Catholics don't like that. And I have seen pictures of Christ as Malaysian, Chinese, French, Italian...people embrace him as they identify him."
Jesus may have preached the gospel of tolerance and forgiveness, but not everyone was ready for those words to come from a black messiah. The Passion Play, then in its 82nd year at the Park Performing Arts Center in Union, NJ, received complaints, cancellations, obscene phone calls and even death threats. Strong media coverage fed the fire, leading spokesperson Francine Trevens to say at the time, "some church groups are cancelling. Groups that have come for years. And it's not because they're afraid of the threats; it's racism." On the other hand, she also said the publicity surrounding the threats began a groundswell of support for the theatre, with a resultant surge in interest and ticket sales. This year, once again adaptor Hafen (PPAC artistic director) and Daniel P. Quinn are co-directing the Passion Play. Bukovec has played the King of Kings for more than a dozen years, while Dez's other theatre credits include Off-Broadway's Black Metropolis and Black Men Cry, Too.
Quinn told Playbill On-Line that Dez played Herod in the 1996 Passion Play -- without a single complaint. He also understudied the lead role but opted not to go on as Jesus because his mother had died at that time.
Comparing the two actors, Quinn said, "Joseph is older, so his Jesus is more experienced, more secure but with a bit more humility. Dez is 30 years younger and gives the role more bravado."
Since 1915, this American version of the 300+-year-old Oberammergau Passion Play has reenacted the final days of Jesus Christ, utilizing 15 musical numbers and more than 50 professional and local actors. The drama moved to the 1400-seat Park Performing Arts Center in 1931. Quinn told Playbill On-Line that the show uses real food and palm trees on stage, though the $1,000 a day it would cost to rent a donkey for the manger scene was too onerous, so they're making do without.
For tickets ($20) and information on The Passion Play call (201) 865-6980.
-- By David Lefkowitz