“I was there. Were you?”
This question will be asked by characters in the live, poetic rendition of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion, “A Journey to Calvary,” March 23 at 6 p.m. at St. Peter Claver Church. It’s the same question that resonates with Christians who participate as the crowd in the Palm Sunday Gospel at Mass, yelling, “Crucify him!”
Marina Lee-Houston directs a cast of approximately 20 St. Peter Claver parishioners who portray the main characters. Deacon Lawrence Houston plays Barabbas; Askia Bennett is Judas Iscariot; Dominique Carter is Jesus; Christine Coleman is Mary; Dr. Ashika Roberts is Mary Magdalene; Devon Watts is Caiaphas; Isaac Netters is Pontius Pilate; and Ajani Gibson is Herod. Veronica Downs-Dorsey, St. Peter Claver’s choir director, is organist and director of the adult choir.
Presented through 2014
Lee-Houston participated, as a child, in several versions of this same re-enactment, which begins with a recitation of the poem, “The Crucifixion,” by James Weldon Johnson that involves the main characters and follows with monologues detailing each character’s feelings during the Way of the Cross and crucifixion.
Approximately eight characters have monologues during the 90-minute staging. The entire church is utilized for the reading – from the font near the altar, the balcony, the back and sides to reflect what is going on in that moment in a person’s life.
“You see it from a different side of the story, and it makes you ask, ‘Who am I in the story? Where do I fit in?’ That makes it more heartfelt,” Lee-Houston said.
Judy Legier directed the Palm Sunday reflection until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and she didn’t return. The impassioned performance was performed at St. Peter Claver and other area Catholic parishes on Palm Sunday. It continued until a year after their long-time pastor, Edmundite Father Michael Jacques, died in 2013.
“Parishioners really related to it because it helped them have a better understanding of the passion,” she said. “We hear the story. We’ve seen the movie, but we are not sitting in the room watching blood dripping from Jesus’ head or seeing him being beaten,” she said.
When the performance was discontinued in 2014, many missed it. Lee-Houston decided to resurrect it this year.
Cast members relate
For Jucunda Robinson, a dance assistant, it’s a family affair with her mother Cynthia Robinson portraying a Jewish woman caught in the crowd. Jucunda Robinson has been in the St. Peter Claver passion play since third grade and vividly recalls re-enactments at St. Peter Claver and bringing it to other churches on Palm Sunday and witnessing its impact.
“It helped the congregation understand … it’s better seeing it acted out live instead of reading it from the Bible,” Robinson said. “They had an understanding of who the characters were and how they played a part in Jesus’ life, and how we can incorporate this into our lives. It brought many people to tears.”
Deacon Houston uses his booming voice to portray the conflicted criminal Barabbas, who was freed by the people. He and Jesus share the first name, “Jesus.”
“Barabbas, in his own way, didn’t understand who Jesus was,” Deacon Houston said. “He saw him as a coward more than anything else. Barabbas looked at himself as one who fought for a cause (a rebellion against the Romans) and would do whatever it takes. Jesus didn’t fight back even though he had a cause. (Barabbas called him a docile sheep who taught to turn the other cheek.). Barabbas truly didn’t understand who Jesus was and why he didn’t fight.”
Deacon Houston said having a live performance is a way to have the Gospel story of Jesus’ life reach people in whatever way they need it.
“It’s going to reveal itself to everyone in a different way in bits and pieces,” Deacon Houston said. “And bring it to our own realization and making it part of who we are. … I’ve learned a lot from others who read and share Scripture. That’s the blessing of it.”
Askia Bennett, a St. Peter Claver usher and volunteer, plays Judas, who took the silver pieces but didn’t think Jesus would die on the cross.
“Everybody takes a performance differently. It touches them more than a Sunday lecture,” Bennett said. “It gets your attention having somebody yelling the lines. … Somebody might be feeling a certain way and a word might catch their attention.”
Cynthia Robinson recalled barely getting through the first performance as a crowd member condemning Jesus because it was so emotional.
“She’s letting everybody know she was part of the crowd, but ‘don’t blame me’ (for what’s happening), ‘I only believed and did what I was told.’” Her character, at heart, thought Jesus was a kind man who went about “healing and doing good. But, he had to do something wrong, otherwise, why were the priests and Pharisees calling for his death? If you were there in the crowd, would you have done anything differently?”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.