March 29, 1997 in Features

Black Jesus Passion Play’s Casting Of African-American In Top Role Wins Overwhelming Support

Joy Thompson Knight-Ridder
 

For many Christians, Holy Week started on Palm Sunday and culminates with Easter Sunday. People attending church services during this period probably have been hearing Bible passages like this one:

“… He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” - Isaiah 53:2-3

Many interpret Isaiah’s ancient prophecy as describing Jesus. Indeed, the Gospels make it clear that while Jesus enjoyed some popularity for a while, he died a hated man. His death by torture on the dreaded Roman cross was more heralded than his birth. And based on the historical record, his only real crime was that he didn’t meet people’s expectations of what a savior should be.

That was 2,000 years ago, but as it is often said, history tends to repeat itself.

Jesus returned earlier this month to Union City, N.J.

Actually, this is an annual thing for him: For the past 82 years, he has been the main character of the Park Theater’s Passion Play.

But this year was different. This time he appeared as an African-American man.

Some pageant patrons were not happy, said the Rev. Kevin Ashe, a Roman Catholic priest who is executive director and producer of the Park Performing Arts Center. Phone calls to the theater ran the gamut: from outrage - “If our group comes to the play and sees an African-American man playing Jesus, we’ll demand our money back” - to outright threats - “We’re going to get you guys.”

Five tour groups canceled reservations. Others wanted to reschedule for a performance when a white actor played Jesus.

After centuries of exposure to the European-inspired image of the fair-skinned, blue-eyed standard, a black Jesus simply did not meet some people’s expectations of what a savior should be.

However, like the Gospels’ Resurrection story, fortunately the pageant parable doesn’t end here.

The news made national headlines, and the subsequent responses have been overwhelmingly positive, Ashe said in a telephone interview. Christians of all races from all over the country and South America called to say, “We’re behind you,” he said.

The theater received hundreds of calls and letters. The play’s production was nearly shut down - not by angry protesters but by well-wishers.

“The press brought out the best in people,” Ashe said.

Ashe is too humble; he deserves the credit.

Union City, population 58,000, is one of the most culturally diverse cities in New Jersey. It is also one of the poorest.

The mission of the Park Theater is to bring the arts to people who would not usually be exposed to them. That means everything from ballets to concerts to Easter pageants.

Ashe had not planned to make a political statement by casting a black Jesus. The Passion Play, which runs through April 20, has always had a rotating ensemble; actors often play different roles.

Desi Arnaz Giles, the actor portraying Jesus, played Herod last year. He simply auditioned for the role of Jesus and got it, Ashe said.

“For me it doesn’t matter what color Jesus’ skin is,” Ashe said. “The real story here is that a national dialogue has been started within the confines of Christianity.”

Ashe is right. People all over the nation are examining their own hearts and attitudes and talking about sensitive issues of race and religion. And this meaningful reflection is taking place during Holy Week. How appropriate.

Think about it. What if Jesus were brown skinned, with dark eyes and kinky hair? Considering the part of the world he was from, those features are likely.

Would those who claim to be Christians still love him, follow him and call him their Lord and savior? Or would they judge him, reject him and treat him like a criminal?

Some Americans view black men as criminals. If Jesus were black and walking the Earth today, would we have him arrested and sentenced to death row? Would he have been crucified by our stereotypes?

The irony of the Passion Play protest is almost eerie in view of the Bible’s account of Jesus’ life and death. As the holiest day on the Christian calendar approaches, we might want to open our Bibles and take a closer view of that despised Palestinian Jew and then decide whether we really would be comfortable calling him friend.


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