John Cardinal O'Connor of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, spoke out March 9 against those who oppose a black actor playing Jesus in a New Jersey religious pageant.
The New York Post quoted his March 9 sermon saying, "Whatever our ethnic origin or color, we are the likeness of God. [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 is apparently ready for those words to come from a black messiah. The Passion Play, a religious pageant-play returning for its 82nd year at the Park Performing Arts Center in Union, NJ, is alternating black and white actors to play Jesus Christ -- which has led to complaints, cancellations, obscene phone calls and even death threats.
With strong media coverage March 4-5 following the initial and disapprovals, the theatre had received even further complaints March 5. "What's worse," said spokesperson Trevens, "is that 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."
Later the same day, Trevens said that the publicity surrounding the threats has also begun a groundswell of support for the theatre, with a resultant surge in interest and ticket sales. To handle the media interest, company members will be holding a press conference Friday, March 7, at 11 AM at the Union, NJ theatre. The show is now in previews for a March 15 opening and a run through April 20 on a weekend matinee schedule. The show thus coincides with Palm Sunday (March 23), Good Friday (March 28) and Easter Sunday (March 30).
This year, adaptor Eric Hafen (PPAC artistic director) and Daniel P. Quinn are co-directing the Passion Play, whose two Christs are Joseph Bukovec, who has played the King of Kings for more than a dozen years, and Dez (Desi Arnaz Giles), an African-American performer. 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 last year's 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."
Quinn paraphrased a typical "complaint" about the presence of Dez in The Passion Play: "I'm a Catholic, and this is Lent. A black man playing Jesus is simply irresponsible..." Asked about long letters and threatening phone calls from theatregoers in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey, Quinn said, "People are limited in their perception of what constitutes the Divine."
On a more practical level, the theatre has been in touch with people from the Mayor's Office and the Police Department, and has at least one of the threatening phone calls on tape. Father Ashe, Executive Director of the Park Theatre, told Playbill On-Line (March 4) he thinks the caller is "just a koo-koo bird. He's making veiled threats against `you guys.' What does that even refer to, `you guys?' Racism is alive and ugly in our society, but I think it's a small percentage. The artistic director [Eric Hafen] talked to one of the patrons after the show on Sunday. She said, `When I first heard you were going to have a black Jesus, my back went up. But at the finale, when the curtain came down, I was first on my feet applauding."
Production spokesperson Francine Trevens said of the situation, "We all have our stupidities, our prejudices, but to be this overt, with this level of hate is shocking. It's terrible, terrible."
Asked about plans for security, Ashe said, "I've got the officer standing right next to me [from the Union City Police Dept.] filing a report."
Quinn says people are given the option to choose which performer they'd rather see. "The irony," says Ashe, is that "Dez isn't able to be in several performances of the show because he's in the National Guard, and by the end of the run he'll be stationed over in Turkey. Also, this weekend he's appearing in a gospel musical locally -- as the Devil."
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 ($12.50-$20) and information on The Passion Play call (201) 865-6980.
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--By David Lefkowitz