By mail and by phone, a New Jersey theatre has been getting protests -- even threats of violence - over its decision to cast a black man as Jesus in its annual Passion Play.
Playbill On-Line asked members to share their opinions of the situation. How should the theatre respond? What are your feelings on non traditional casting -- i.e. casting people in plays regardless of their race?
Here are the results so far. Playbill thanks all those who took the time to write:
From Ryan Matthew Leeds:
In response to the black Christ: I think that it is a very sad commentary on the way [some] Christians act. Pastors wonder why there are empty pews on Sunday morning and why people are resistant to Christianity. I consider myself a Christian, but it's moments like this that cause me to be ashamed of my association. It doesn't mattter what color Christ was. It's the lessons that he taught and the sacrifice He made that should be remembered. If groups want to cancel over something that ridiculous, go ahead. Give those seats to people with an open mind. I wonder if those same people will cancel their tickets on judgement day if Christ doesn't "fit" their image. (3/7/97)
Type-casting is understandable to me. I know that, being an Asian actress, I shall never likely be cast as a blonde bombshell. However, the role of Jesus should transcend type, for the man taught tolerance and unity. It's a shame we are so blinded by custom that we cannot accept the logically acceptable. (3/7/97)
I've seen black actors come and go, portraying certain historical figures on screen and stage. Some of those figures were not necessarily African-American in reality, but so what? Why are we so upset over a black man playing Jesus in a show called "The Passion Play?" Unfortunately, we live in a very bigoted and racist society. I'd like to think that we've made changes in our attitudes toward race and ethnicity within the last 30 years after the Civil Rights movement, but unfortunately we haven't.
We've got to make our future brighter than it has been for 30 years, and we've got to get past our prejudices. If we don't, the ill will will never change.
My problem with those who object to Desi Arnaz Giles is they claim to be the righteous, that God didn't intend for Jesus to be played by a black man, that it is blasphemous for a black man to play Jesus because Jesus was a Jew, and that he was a white Jew. If any of those people still adhere to that kind of close minded, prejudicial mentality, then I pity them.
Christ never told us to see color on our skin. He also didn't tell us that we should love one particular race over another. He did say we all should love each other, regardless of our differences. Those who say that Christ said the opposite are liars and others who pretend to be followers of Christ, pretending to believe that we should love each other but truthfully feel that the colorlines are there are sanctimonious fools.
To quote from Shakespeare: "He hath disgraced me and hindered me of half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies! and what's his reason? I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" - Shylock, "The Merchant of Venice"
From Sheryl Hiatt, Illinois:
If I lived closer, I'd make it a point to come to see the play no matter who was playing Jesus. My daughter who is 13 is always trying out for plays and musicals. I always tell her she may or may not get the part depending on the TALENTS of the other people auditioning. I hope to never have to tell her that it depends on her skin color.!!!!
My support is with the entire cast. (3/7/97)
It really saddens me to learn how racist Christians can be. The progress towards equality in this society is disgraceful!! Why not a black Jesus? I can't even believe this is an issue. The truth is that the Archie Bunkers of the world really do exist!! The scary thing is that these people that protest a black man playing Jesus are teaching their children the same.
Another "WHITE" guy. (3/6/97)
From Heather Covington ( H1Joly@aol.com) Damascus, MD:
Yet again, adults can't cope with changing world. Why can't these people just get a life and move on? Sure there are more taxing problems of the world they can occupy themselves with. (3/6/97)
The Neo Nazi fear-driven pathetics are at it again, I'm afraid. It's so sad that people have nothing better to do with their empty lives than to waste their energies on such folly. I don't remember God telling people WHAT color He was, do you???
These are the same types of people who try to exist in a you're okay-as-long-as-we-can control-you bubble. I just don't get what these people think God meant when He said to love thy neighbor. . .More power to the brave company for mounting this production of the greatest story ever told, and SHAME on the racist bigots who mask their hatred with a hymn book and a tie on Sunday morning!!! (3/6/97)
Oh for Heaven's sake, can't people just get along? Colorblind casting has prevailed in opera for ages and in theater for about a decade (though it is applied almost exclusively for minority actors playing white characters and not vice versa--so it's not truly colorblind). But that's theater; this is religion, and religion breeds bigotry. Most Christians don't conceive of Jesus as a Jew, which he definitely was, much less a black man. If, as Christians maintain, Jesus and his Love were universal, embracing good people of all races, why can't these self-described Christians accept a black Jesus? FWIW, last year the York Mystery Plays in York England used a woman as God. Surely Jesus and God transcend all considerations of gender, race, nationality, etc. (3/6/97)
I heard about this situation on CNN and was completely appalled at the lack of tolerance. This situation is especially significant for me because in a few weeks I will be taking the stage as a female Jesus in the University of Dubuque's production of Godspell. So far, no death threats have come my way but my portrayal of Jesus has been discussed in several of the seminary classes here. In preparing for the role, I have found that I have many things in common with Jesus- namely a love of people and love for teaching people what it means to be human. (3/5/97)
There is absolutly nothing wrong with non-traditional casting. I applaud it! An actor is an actor...why must we constantly look at the color of someones skin to determine their worth? I though we (as Americans) we over that....I guess I was wrong. Besides, this same actor has performed the part of Pilot for several years in the same production, and nothing was ever said....Are they trying to send the message that it is ok for a black actor to play Pilot, the so called "bad guy", but not Jesus, the "good guy"????? As an educator of elementary school, I try daily to teach the children not to judge others strictly on their appearance, but on what is inside them. If society takes this kind of stand on the subject, how are the children ever going to learn??? (3/6/97)
From Pattie, N.J. :
I was shocked to read about the death threats against Desi!!
I met him a few years ago at the Renaissance Festival in NJ where we both performed He is a wonderful friend and person and a fantastic actor! I guess I am naive in believing that this kind of rasicm has gone on its way. Especially considering it is a religious play! Seems to me that the church groups and Holier-than-thou types that are complained, cancelling and even threatening Desi are no more than a bunch of hypocrites! Whats more is that they are a disgrace to the church. When I look at Desi I see a man who is a friend, when are people going to get beyond race? (3/5/97)
From Pam in N.J.:
First of all, violence is never the answer to anything. The people who have such vigorous protesting to do can do it by boycotting those performances that they would prefer not to see. Secondly, for those ignorant enough to believe that everything they read in the Bible is fact, my advice to you would be...guess again. I for one am a realist and although I believe the Bible has many great lessons and values for society, I am sure that not every word is an absolute truth. One must remember that the Bible was written not by God, but by man. No man is infallible and mistakes are bound to happen. Also, if you've ever played the game telephone as a child, any stories that were "heresay" may not have been relayed correctly anyway. As much as people would like to believe every last word in the Bible is God's word and there is absolutely nothing false about it, I think they should think twice. No one is perfect and I'm sure the authors of the Bible are no exception to the rule. I, for one, would be happy to see anyone that can perform the role well. For those of us who choose to be closed-minded, you have the option to see the other performer in the role or not see the show at all. Why anyone with such hatred and prejudice would want to see a performance of a religious play is beyond my conception anyway! I don't believe the Bible would promote either of those things as virtues!!!! (3/5/97)
From Ed Woodward:
I am the chairman of the board of deacons at a Baptist church in Hudson County. Our congregation is predominantly white, as I am. I see no problem with a black man playing the part of Jesus.
I doubt that Jesus, an orthodox Jew living in Judea circa 30 AD, was a black man in the sense that we use the term. But I am certain that he was not the blond, blue-eyed man that we see represented in most pictures. An actor with a darker skin color would be more historically accurate regardless of his race.
The individuals who are making the threats should consider the subject of the play, Jesus and his sacrifice for the world. The mark of His people is love (John 13:35). (3/5/97)
Many years ago I saw the Tom O'Horgan production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The actor playing Jesus was black. He had previously played Judas in the same production. So what?
An actor is an actor regardless of color. A part is a part. Sounds simplistic, I know but I simply no longer understand this disease called racism that seems to be infecting more and more people in this society. It makes me sad and angry and ulitmately frustrated that people can be so stupid and ugly and hateful. (3/5/97)
From Ina Burwasser:
What is this all about?? If I remember my history, Jesus was from the Gallilee. People from that part of the Mediteranean were often dark. Could it be -- horrors! -- that Jesus WAS really Black? What blasphemy! Really! An actor SHOULD be chosen solely on merit, not by the color of his skin.
These hatemongers seem to miss Jesus's message - love thy neighbor as thyself. Therefore, Jesus, himself, would be absolutely APPALLED at all this hate.
I think both the theater and the actor involved should just do as Jesus preached: "Turn the other cheek" and ignore the venom. It will soon die down from lack of energy and publicity! By the way I'm Caucasian but ashamed of others of my race who spout such viciousness and hate. (3/5/97)
From Walt, NYC:
What can i say...we live in a racist society. . .yet how sadly ironic that the man-saviour who is meant to teach love and tolerance can be a target of hate and shame if played by a black man. why the hell are these hypocrites going to see a play about Jesus anyway...there must be a klan meeting somewhere they can attend.
Walt...NYC...A WHITE GUY!!! (3/5/97)
Based upon where Jesus lived, I believe his skin was much darker than generally portrayed in modern literature. A black actor playing Jesus may be more historically accurate than a Caucasian actor. Anyway, what difference does the color of the skin make when casting an actor as Jesus? I (foolishly?) believed that theater celebrated diversity more often than other segments of our society. Occasions like this remind me that narrow-minded persons still like to flaunt their ignorance in public. Discrimination demonstrates the most un Christian behavior! Jesus himself would not approve of the threats and fear that the troublemakers espouse. If someone doesn't like the casting decision, they should simply not attend the performance. The theater should cast the best actor for the part and hopefully enjoy the increased attendance that the publicity generated. (3/5/97)