Passion popularity

Herald-Palladium Saturday, March 13, 2004 by Debra Haight Correspondent

With 5,000 attending last year and 10,000 people expected this year, the Andrews University campus is fast becoming a mecca for people in Southwest Michigan and neighboring areas who are interested in passion plays.

This year's passion play productions will take place during Easter weekend, with 25 performances scheduled.  Interest in passion plays has increased in recent weeks with the release of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" movie.  "The movie has certainly piqued people's interest in his life," passion play founder Ron Whitehead said this week. "There's a lot more conversation about Passion Week, and we're getting a lot more calls this year with the movie just having come out."

People are coming to Andrews from Seventh-day Adventist colleges in Oregon, California, Nebraska and Texas.  "We've become a mecca for passion plays, but not by design," he said. "People are now coming here to be trained to do it at their schools. They're coming to watch us. ... We are the only ones I know of within a several hour driving range who offer a walking tour of the last moments of Christ's life."  "Last year, 2,500 people were expected, and we got 5,000," he said. "This year, we went to two days to accommodate more of the people who want to come with their youth groups, family members, or co-workers. ... We were blessed last year as it rained all around the area and only started here after the last show."

Whitehead said the Andrews passion play has a little different emphasis than Gibson's movie. "Ours is a little different as we highlight the life of Christ and spend more time in the resurrection scene," he said.  "The movie grabs the most visual parts of each of the Gospels. ... We're trying to be very authentic. We relooked at it and wanted to make sure that it was as close as possible to the Bible text."  "Personally, I think it would be a real call for a parent to let an 8- or 10-year-old see the movie, but with this, there's no problem," he said.  "Not to take anything away from the movie, but we're not going that route. This will be PG. ... I call ours PG. It's all still there, but it's not as intense.  "Here, the scourging will be something the people can hear with the sound of a live whip," he said. "But they don't see it. They do see Christ coming out having obviously been scourged. With Christ being nailed to the cross, the backs of the Roman soldiers will be to the audience. The audience can't see it, but will hear the sound effects. We ask them to use their imagination rather than provide the visual image."While Whitehead's goal is to be sensitive to families, a scene has been added this year to show Judas hanging himself in the distance.  "We're trying to be sensitive to families, and we didn't have the scene with Judas last year," he said. "We are going to this year so parents have the opportunity to show their children that choices have consequences. Judas made two bad choices. I think having that scene adds to the story."

Another area where the Andrews passion play differs from the movie is the use of the verse from Matthew 27:25, which Gibson took out of the English subtitles for his film because of anti-Semitism charges.  "That verse was challenging for Mel, and he de-emphasized it because people said it was anti-Semitic," he said. "The phrase 'Let this blood be on us' is a classic phrase that's disturbing to some people.  "From the context of a Christian, it was sin that placed him on the cross, He was the lamb of God and died for all sinners," he said. "We use that phrase in our passion play because it's in the Scripture, and we follow the Scripture record. ... Our play is interactive with people interacting not only with the actors, but also others in the audience and with their children. When they hear this verse, parents can tell their children how some view this part of Scripture differently."

A major difference between the movie and the Andrews passion play is the greater emphasis on the events that led up to the crucifixion, with the resurrection rather than the crucifixion being the ultimate resolution of Christ's struggles on earth.  "We do the resurrection in three parts, showing how Christ hung around sinners, his crucifixion and his resurrection," Whitehead said.  His daughter, Holly, the play's co-director, noted how people reacted last year.  "The resurrection scene was the most powerful, with people on their feet when Christ walks out of the tomb," she said. "They also liked the music, which was 'Arise My Love' by the Christian rock band, NewSong. It was very powerful."

Passion play participants have been influenced both by Gibson's movie and last year's production.  Andrews freshman and Berrien Springs resident John Hood is one of eight people portraying Jesus during the two days.  A photography major, he saw "The Passion of the Christ" last weekend.  "I was almost in shock from seeing it and the realization of how I, as a simple person, can do this," he said. "How can I play the part of someone who never sinned but who felt everyone's sin?  "It also amazed me to think how he was able to stand up through all he was put through. Anyone else would have died. He left a trail of blood behind him the whole way that he was carrying the cross, being beaten and falling. Some scenes in the movie showed his utter agony."  Hood said he felt more of a burden to portray Jesus properly after seeing the movie.  "I don't feel more pressure, but more of a burden with more people interested in Christ's story after seeing the movie," he said.  "Jim Caviezel (the actor portraying Jesus) did it so well that it didn't seem like acting. It really showed how he did all of this for me. ... Some people are coming to ours after seeing it. I've definitely noticed a lot more interest in the story, with people asking me about scenes in the movie."  "It's taken a lot of time, but it's been rewarding, seeing everybody react to the lines I'm saying and seeing the events through Christ's eyes is amazing," he said.  "It's really making Christ's life real in my life. It's a very humbling experience. It's not every day that you have the opportunity to be part of something this big that may change someone's life and increase the number of people in heaven."

Andrews senior and media technology/music major Telaine Buisson is portraying Mary Magdalene, just as she did last year.  She's from New York, with her family coming from Haiti several years ago. She's also seen the movie and said that it will help her with this passion play.  "It did help me. It was very powerful," she said.  "The actress who played Mary Magdalene expressed her feelings without talking at all. It will change how I portray her so that I'll be more emotional."  Buisson said last year's passion play helped her grow closer to God.  "My relationship with God is closer, so playing Mary Magdalene is stronger to me," she said.  "Last year's production did influence me. I just feel privileged to have been able to re-enact what God has done for someone."

The Andrews Passion Play is a true community effort, with more than 300 volunteers working that weekend.  Others from as far away as Holland, Mich., are offering the use of factory space to make fiberglass tombs; donating materials; lending live animals for the marketplace scenes; and sewing the costumes for the actors to wear.  As many as two dozen women have donated their time to sew the costumes, and a community sewing bee is set from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Lake Union Conference building along Old U.S. 31.