Passion play

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It is the story of one man’s death and suffering. But it is also the story of the salvation of mankind. While the Passion Play recounts Jesus’ last days, it’s what comes after that is the message.

This Good Friday, the interdenominational, traveling troupe Companions of Jesus of New Mexico will perform the 14th season of “Death of the Messiah,” the Passion Play which recreates the last days of Christ’s life, showing his crucifixion and resurrection.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Mother Mary cradles Jesus after he was taken down from the cross. Rebecca Granger and Chuck Kent portray, Mary and Jesus, respectively, two of the central characters in “Death of the Messiah.”

The production’s final performance this Lenten season will be at 7 p.m., Friday, April 18, in the Belen High School auditorium.

The play’s birth, humble as the holy man it depicts, took place in 1634 in the small German town of Oberammergau. There, towns people, in the midst of a bubonic plague, vowed to depict the Passion of Christ every 10 years forevermore if their town would be spared from further despair, according to the Catholic Travel Center.

Three centuries later, the play is performed worldwide, from Oberammergau to Nova Jerusalém, Brazil, to Belen, paying homage to the Passion of Christ and the profound teaching it holds for millions of people the world over.

Louis Chavez, the play’s facilitator, has been part of the local production since it began more than a decade ago. Chavez said Joe and Pat Brown introduced the play to the companions about 20 years ago, and it took hold at a Lenten tradition in the area.

“The companions are from all walks of life; some have never acted, others have experience, some come just to help backstage and end up on stage and love it,” Chavez said.

Every year, the troupe ends its run of performances in Belen, also known as Bethlehem.

“This community is really special to us,” he said. “This is one of the ways we have to share the power of the gospel.”

During his time with the play, Chavez said he has watched performers of 6 and 7 years old grow into adults in their early 20s.

“We’ve performed in places like Joy Junction and it’s good for them and good for us, especially some of our teens,” he said. “They’ve never seen life like that; a lot of good people are down on their luck.”

Over the years, Chavez said the troupe has had to beg and borrow lighting and sound equipment. It has finally been able to buy its own, something that is helpful when they perform in remote locations around the state.

He said they are thrilled to complete their production run at the high school, with its professional stage and equipment.

Another thing that has improved over time are the costumes, Chavez said.

The first year, the cast commandeered bed sheets to make costumes, Chavez said. After the performance, some people commented about the wardrobe.

“Some people said, ‘You realize it looked like the KKK?’ Oh wow …,” Chavez can only laugh and shake his head now, thankful for the racks of period costumes professional seamstress Susan Duran has crafted.

“I never thought it would go on this long,” Chavez added. “It’s a lot of work sometimes, but it’s worth it.”

After taking on many roles, such as Jesus, a high priest and Roman centurion, Robert Kaneshiro has taken on the additional role of prop master.

Before each performance, Kaneshiro and an assistant run through the entire play, marking the stage with colored tape to indicate the placement of furniture and boulders for each scene.

He also works with the lighting crew to ensure the spot lights fall just right on the actors.

“It’s important to go out and spread the Word to people. This allows people to know Jesus,” Kaneshiro said.

He recalls one performance in Albuquerque, where the young children in the audience were so caught up in the story, they began calling out to the centurions to “leave Jesus alone.”

After six years of portraying Jesus, Chuck Kent says every year, he takes away something new from the story. During a trial in his life, Kent took a friend’s advice and came to the audition for the play. He read for a guard and was cast as Jesus.

“Doing this has helped me realize that no matter how bad things were, things are not that bad. When there is stress and turmoil and every thing turns dark, there are far worse things,” Kent said.

Being a part of the production has helped him let go of guilt and find peace, Kent said.

“When we do something wrong, we need to acknowledge guilt and try to do better,” he said. “But you don’t need to crucify yourself. That’s already been done.”

Companions of Jesus of New Mexico will hold the performance of “The Death of the Messiah,” at 7 p.m., on Good Friday, April 18, at the Belen High School auditorium.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.