Theater » Theater Feature

Hooray for Jesus

Bellevue Baptist's Memphis Passion Play is gigantic.

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There's a short bit of streaming video running constantly at Bellevue Baptist Church's Web site. Grainy animation provides the illusion of motion for otherwise still photographs depicting the life of Christ. Though the clip is silent, the accompanying text has been carefully assembled to remind readers of a booming Hollywood-style voiceover.

"He is despised and rejected by men," the trailer begins. "He has borne our grief. He was wounded for our transgressions. He poured out his soul unto death. He bore the sin of many, and this spring Jesus returns to send all the bad guys back to hell with heart-stopping, heaven-sent kung-fu action."

Okay, all that stuff about kung-fu and hell -- I just made that up. But you get the idea. The Memphis Passion Play isn't just some run-of-the-mill pageant that's being promoted. Do not expect to see a handful of bashful, Kool-Aid-stained children dressed in their parents' bathrobes with sheets tied to their heads, adorably misremembering their lines and accidentally rewriting the Bible. This is a very serious production produced by a mega-church with deep coffers and virtually limitless resources. It's no "pageant" whatsoever.

Though it is produced indoors (in the church's 7,000-seat sanctuary), it is realized on the kind of epic scale usually reserved for outdoor dramas like Unto These Hills or The Legend of Daniel Boone. Lightning flashes, thunder rolls, and the production climaxes with an earthquake even the audience can feel. With a cast and crew of nearly 900, it might very well be Memphis' largest locally produced theatrical. To provide a little more perspective, Mesa, Arizona's 66-year-old Mormon-produced Passion play may claim to be the largest in the world. And while the Saints' spectacle does sport a somewhat larger cast than Bellevue's modest 300, Mesa's combined cast and crew is only 500 strong.

On Saturday, a week before opening, the set is nearly complete. The main stage, as large as any in town, if perhaps not as deep, has been turned into a rocky hill in Jerusalem. But the set doesn't stop there. To the left, there is a monstrously large representation of a Jewish temple. To the right, we see Pilate's home and a smaller dwelling. The stage is filled to capacity with volunteer actors in sweats. The aisles are lined with additional dancers, the orchestra pit is full, and a robeless choir is seated down front, music in hand. There is a second, smaller stage in the auditorium for the director. He paces back and forth, joyfully barking out directions on his microphone: directions like, "Shepherds, can you sit down?" "Ladies and disciples, get ready for the stick dance." "Judas, I really like that thing you're doing.

"This is where we show the might of Rome," he says, "with legions and animals." Drums bang out a throbbing Middle Eastern rhythm. Amateur dancers whirl about, and everyone shouts, "Hooray, Jesus is coming!"

Yes, "Hooray, Jesus is coming." It may not be the most sophisticated dialogue, but when 300 people jump up and down at the same time, the message gets across.

"We try to show the joy of Jesus," says James Whitmire, the music minister at Bellevue Baptist who has watched the church's Passion play grow for 22 years. "Jesus was a person," he says. "People loved him. The Pharisees said he 'spent too much time with sinners.' When the crucifixion comes, we want people to say here was a God that came to earth and lived a full life."

Whitmire recalls Bellevue's first Passion play inside its old church in Midtown. "It was called Living Pictures," he says. The choir stood on either side of the stage like a Greek chorus while the Passion of Christ was acted out behind a scrim. It was a simple shadow play with music. It's now five times larger with a script and music written by members of the congregation."

At this point, it might be helpful to remember the words of Jesus. He told the world that a widow's pennies meant more to God than the elaborate sacrifices and loud prayers of the Pharisees. Bellevue is a gigantic organization with a sprawling campus and neighboring athletic field. There are few organizations capable of mounting such a tremendous spectacle, and given Jesus' feelings about over-the-top displays of faith, it does give one pause.

"We've got a lot of members of the church who are carpenters," Whitmire says. "It's a core of about 70 volunteers who are carpenters, and they built the set pretty much overnight. We feed them supper at 11 [p.m.] and breakfast in the morning. They do it because of the end result. Because so many lives are changed. We have all of these women who sew and are just so talented. We have people who cook and all these wonderful ladies who provide child-care. And it's all volunteer. They could never afford to do this on Broadway."

Whitmire has 900 volunteers giving what they can, and in the end, it would appear, all those pennies add up. So, in the spirit of the Easter season, "Hooray for Jesus."

The Memphis Passion Play runs April 2nd-7th at Bellevue Baptist Church.

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