Among Chicago-land’s array of attractions, the passion play Jesus of Nazareth has become a “must see” theatrical event. The passion play is directed by Steve Munsey, pastor of the Family Christian Center, a mega church located 30 minutes outside Chicago in Munster, Indiana that has attracted nearly10,000 members. Several years ago Munsey’s church erected a permanent set depicting Old Jerusalem, which spans nearly 100 feet. From this elaborate set, Munsey directs a cast and crew of 2,000, bringing the story of Jesus of Nazareth to life in a manner resembling today’s big-budget Broadway productions. Actors and volunteer crew, make-up artists, seamstresses, carpenters and the hundreds who help make the play a success year-end and year-out are passionate in their zeal for the project’s mission to share the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
Pastor Steve, as he is fondly known, is a charismatic figure who possesses a flair for dramatic illustration. He is often seen in different roles as a fervent evangelical fundraiser on TBS and CBN television channels. His long running production of Jesus of Nazareth was first staged in an outdoor amphitheater in the Seattle Washington area where a version of it continues to be seen today.
The Chicago-area passion play production features a variety of unique theatrical highlights that entertain and dazzle an ever-growing diverse audience comprised of every conceivable demographic classification, religious denomination , ethnic background from urban and rural America, attracting conservatives and liberals.
Matinees and weekend night performances of the passion play begin in February and run until after Easter. Theatergoers arrive by bus caravan, church van, or in family recreational vehicles. Youth groups, singles, and couples seeking a departure from the normal weekend dating regimen flock to Jesus of Nazareth each season. Steel workers, farmers, lawyers, clergy and VIP entertainers and politicians like former Vice President Dan Quayle and Oprah Winfrey have been among those to view the stunning Mid-West production. They come in droves from towns large and small, mostly throughout the mid-west but also from points vastly farther away. Through word of mouth each year the crowds are attracted and they come expecting to see a dazzling theatrical spectacle.
Live camels, horses, period chariots, cascading waterfalls, and fireworks explosions simulating earthquakes as Jesus is crucified are featured. There is even an obligatory Hollywood style chase scene employing electrifying aerial stunts as a thief attempts to escape amidst a crowded street scene. Biblical or historical revisionism, Mmmm? I’ll leave that to theologians to figure out. Great theater? Definitely! The verdict is in. Jesus of Nazareth is a hit, attracting larger audiences each year.
Many viewers leave the experience strangely aware that they have experienced a wonderfully engaging medium, the theater, for translating a familiar biblical account into something viscerally powerful that becomes for some spiritually transformative and perhaps for others purely interesting entertainment.
During one the play’s early incarnations, I had the honor of being chosen from an open casting call to play a principal role as Pontius Pilate – a first for an African American. This season, I plan to attend a performance of Jesus of Nazareth, but this time as a spectator not an actor. When the curtain closes I’m sure I’ll continue to ask myself the same rhetorical question for which neither Pontius Pilate, I, nor anyone since has found a definitive answer, “Truth! What is truth”? If you plan to visit Chicago in the next two months, do yourself a favor and check out Jesus of Nazareth.