Racism, Evidence of Continuing

Racism, Evidence of Continuing

by Rubel Shelly

Published in LoveLines (Mar. 26, 1997)

Jesus Played by a Black Man?

The Park Theater Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey, cast its annual production of the "Passion Play" this year with a white and black man sharing the role. And what a controversy it sparked.

After the first Sunday performance on March 3, calls started coming in to the Union City theater. According to artistic director Eric Hafen, the man who cast the play, the first caller said, "When is the white actor playing because I donít want to see the black thing."

Bus loads of people from the area typically see the play that focuses on the final days of the life of Christ. The passion (i.e., intense feeling, suffering) of his agony in Gethsemane, trials, and crucifixion are recreated on stage. The pre-Easter period is the traditional time for the play to be performed in both churches and theaters.

At least two bus groups have cancelled their plans to see the play in Newark. Another switched its reservation to a day when the white actor was in the role. There have even been death threats against the black actor.

Desi Arnaz Giles is the actor in question. He is apparently unwilling to let the controversy and threats intimidate him. "It is the most important role of my life," he said. "I will never do anything more important than this."

He specifically reacted to the death threat by saying, "I have led a very complete life. Should somebody clip me during a performance, donít cry for me. Just rejoice because Iím ready to go home."

The life of Jesus Christ is about reconciliation ó man to God, man to man. What an irony that this casting decision has rekindled one of the most hateful forms of division. Racism is morally wrong, and anyone who loses interest in the story of the life of Jesus because a black man is playing the role wouldnít get the point anyway.

Christian theology as developed in the New Testament epistle of First John draws a direct and inseparable link between love for God and love for oneís fellows. "If anyone says, ĎI love God,í yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother" (4:20-21).

Strong languague, isnít it? But important truths need to be stated emphatically. Nobody should be able to say, "Well, I just didnít understand there was a relationship between my religion and my racism!"

I have no idea how good the Newark production is on its merits as drama. But if the story line is essentially true to the Gospel accounts, I can only hope that Christians in the area begin a promotion to guarantee that every seat for every performance is filled. Here is the chance for people who have gotten the point of Jesusí story to rise up in solidarity to rebuke the sort of bigotry and hatred that still shows itself all too often.

It all combines to make one wonder: What would the ticket-cancellers, play boycotters, and would-be intimidators do if a Jew were to be cast in the role of the Son of God? Ah, but wait. I seem to remember that that approach has already been tried, and it didnít go over well among certain folks either.

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