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Jesus Christ, community-theater star

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The crucifixion scene of East Vegas Christian Center’s Passion play.
Photo: Rick Lax

We’re not going to get into whether the Jews killed Jesus.

I realize this omission is itself moderately controversial. I realize that a lot of Jewish people would tell me, “You have a responsibility to inform your readers that the Romans killed Jesus, not your ancestors.” And I realize that those who believe the Jews did kill Jesus—those who quote Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be on us and on our children.”)—will see that omission as a de facto admission that the Jews did kill him. As if I were in a position to make this sort of admission just by virtue of the fact that a) I’m Jewish; and b) I’m writing about the subject.

I’m not qualified to discuss the intricacies of Jesus’ death. Before watching the East Vegas Christian’s Center’s Passion play, most of my knowledge of the crucifixion came from the first half of a single sentence on the first page of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: “And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change ...”

So we’re not going to get into it.

They’re called passion plays, and they’re performed around the globe, from New Jersey to Sri Lanka. The most famous one has been staged since the early 1600s in a small Bavarian town called Oberammergau. Even sin-soaked Las Vegas has its own Passion play, with six pre-Easter performances at the East Vegas Christian Center.

Calendar

The Passion Play of Las Vegas
April 1-2, 7 p.m., April 3, 2 p.m., free.
East Vegas Christian Center
6450 Stewart Avenue, 450-5511

Passion plays have a rocky history. The Christian Science Monitor says, “historically, productions have reflected negative images of Jews and the longtime church teaching that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death.” So in the late ’80s, the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs published “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion”—criteria that included, Don’t stereotype the Jews, and, Don’t use problematic lines like, “His blood be on us, and on our children.”

Then, in 2003, Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ, and all my friends and my family freaked out, though few of them actually saw the movie. I know I didn’t see it.

So on March 25, when I drove across Las Vegas to watch the Christian Center’s penultimate rehearsal, I had no idea what I was in for ...

I enter the church, and climb up the stairs. I walk into a beige room with a stack of folded blue gym mats in the far corner. At the front of the room, a woman strums a guitar, eyes closed, and sings, “Oh Lord, you’re beautiful. Your face is all I see.”

A group of 35 sings along. They raise their arms, just like on TV. Some of their palms face up, some face forward.

More from the East Vegas Christian Center's Passion play.

“Lord, we have a city that desperately needs you,” the singer prays. “We see the shining lights, but hidden in the shadow are those who are broken. We pray that you will bring those people to a place where they’re confronted with the Gospel. And we pray for those on stage.”

I look around the room and wonder, which one of these guys is Jesus? The skinny guy with the brown beard is the obvious choice, only he’d introduced himself to me as JT, the show’s PR guy, not as an actor.

The woman with the guitar introduces extremely red-haired director Coey Humble, who, in turn, introduces the Passion players to me. They applaud.

“We can show the city, through drama, the sacrifice that Jesus made for all of us,” Humble says.

Her idealism is quickly superseded by tangible concerns. A woman in the back raises her hand and says, “I still don’t have my headdress!”

Humble says she’s on it. The costumes and the props will be ready by showtime, she assures the group. To demonstrate this point, she brings out one of the just-made props: a Seder plate.

“Who doesn’t know the symbolism of the Seder plate?” Humble asks.

Seder for the stage

Pretty much every hand goes up ... except for mine. I might not know the story of the crucifixion, but I knew the Seder plate like the back of my yad. (Hebrew for hand.)

Coey picks up each object on the plate and tries her damndest at pronunciation. She says the “cha” in charoset, the way I say “cha” in “charcoal.” (You’re supposed to make the “cha” sound by clearing phlegm from your throat with the letter H).

She picks up the hardboiled egg and says, “I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce this one.” Does anybody know how to say it?”

I keep my mouth shut. I’m not eager to reveal to the group that I’m Jewish, but this probably says less about the group than it does about my insecurities.

The Seder plate also has a piece of ostensibly unleavened bread on it. I’m pretty sure it was a Mama Mary’s miniature-pizza crust, though. Flat, but not unleavened.

The group moves out onto the second-floor balcony, and for a few seconds we stare at the city glowing in the distance. There’s a large gulf of darkness separating the Strip from the church. The question on everybody’s mind is: Come Easter, will Las Vegas cross that buffer to watch the gospel unfold, to pray, to repent?

The Passion players have been rehearsing 11 weeks in the New Horizon church. This is their first rehearsal in the actual performance space.

“I want the merchant women to come up the center!” Humble shouts. “Like this! Like this!”

Nobody’s listening, so assistant director Patty Murphy blows her whistle.

It takes the group 45 minutes to block the opening entrance. I flip through the program. First I read the back, which features a reprinted article, “The Passion of the Christ From a Medical Point of View,” written by Dr. C. Truman Davis.

According to my Google search, Davis is a theological one-hit wonder: He’s famous for his detailed description of Jesus’ suffering, and nothing else. Here’s a couple sentences from his hit single:

“The legionnaire drives a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrists and deep into the wood. The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees moderately flexed … As He slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms—the nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the median nerves.”

I look up from the program and see that Humble and Murphy are trying to get everybody’s attention once again. Apparently Humble confiscated Murphy’s whistle because people were getting annoyed. Humble gives them their motivation: “It’s Passover week, and you heard that Jesus is coming! You’ve got goose bumps!”

Children shout, “Jesus is coming!” and then Jesus comes. Turns out that JT isn’t just the PR guy; he plays Jesus, too.

“We love you, Jesus,” one of the kids tells him.

JT overturns the money tables and exits stage left.

Having heard most of the actors speak, I can tell you that the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs has little to worry about with respect to stereotyping Jews. These actors couldn’t pass as Jewish to save their lives—not the black guy, not the Asian guy, not the guy with the Southern accent, and certainly not the guy who sounds like Don Knotts.

During the scene change, I talk with producer Garry Knight. He was responsible for bringing the Passion play to Vegas 15 years ago—it once played the Riviera.

“One of the toughest scenes for the cast,” Knight tells me, “is when they have to yell, ‘Crucify him!’”

It sounds like a silly concern, but it’s not. The passion players aren’t professional actors, so they’re not used to saying things they don’t mean. And they love Jesus, more than I can imagine. For Christ’s sake, they’re in a Passion play.

“The scourging scene is tough, too,” Knight says. “They’ve got to act drunk and whip JT without really hurting him. The scourge is made of rope, but still, by the end of the season, JT is pretty beat up.”

They use a gimmicked cross, too. There’s a ledge for JT to stand on, and the hand nails work like the old arrow- through-head gag.

Later, as I prepare to leave, the Passion players ask, “Will we see you on Monday?” Knight asks me.

“God willing,” I reply.

The sun is going down, and it’s the first night of Passover. I should be at a Seder, like my parents or President Obama, Instead, I’m heading back to church.

About 200, including 50 children, have shown up to watch the first show. The toddlers fidget, the babies cry, and they don’t stop until Jesus is crucified. That gets their attention. At times I’m bored—particularly during the musical numbers, which each have no fewer than three endings.

But things get exciting toward the end. Like when the soldiers taunt and scourge Jesus. They may have struggled with the scene internally, but it looked great. When they’re through with Christ, he turns around and reveals the bloody whip marks on his back. It’s a prosthetic, but it’s a good one.

When the soldiers nail Jesus to the cross, he lets out three cries. After a few minutes, he says “It is finished,” and dies.

Then we applaud, which feels weird.

The last scene is the best. Peter, played by Eddie Conover, steals the show as he asks who will resurrect Jesus. (It’s a rhetorical question; the point is, only Jesus can perform resurrections.) Peter leaves and returns with good news: After three days, Christ is alive and well.

And then resurrected Jesus, now wearing a shiny white robe, steps out onto the balcony. As he does, he hits his head on a fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling. It swings back and forth for 20 seconds and then the lights go dark.

I don’t think the Jews were stereotyped in this Passion play. On the other hand, the performance did include the problematic line, “His blood be on us and on our children,” so perhaps this version wouldn’t get the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs’ blessing, after all.

The subtext of the play is clear: See how much this guy is suffering? Well, he’s doing it for you. Now what are you going to do for him? In a sense, it’s about guilting people into following the church.

I don’t have a problem with that.

I’m not a Christian. I don’t think Christ can save me, in part because I don’t think I need to be saved. But I appreciate that a lot of people—people like Coey, Patty, Garry and JT—do. They believe that I’m destined to burn in hell for all of eternity if I don’t change my beliefs. So I don’t fault them for trying to change my beliefs, even if they use guilt or fear in their attempts. I’m much more offended by those who believe I’m headed for eternal damnation but don’t do anything about it.

The Passion Play of Las Vegas April 1-2, 7 p.m., April 3, 2 p.m., free. East Vegas Christian Center, 6450 Stewart Avenue, 450-5511.

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