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By David Briggs
Associated Press religion writer
The three elementary school girls giggled as they imagined what Jesus looks like. He's tall, one said. With a flowing white robe, said another. And he is nice.
The Jesus the girls from the Church of the Incarnation in Jersey City, N.J., were describing was a lot like the one they were watching on stage at America's oldest continually running Passion Play.
What none of the girls thought to mention was that this Jesus -- like the three of them -- was black.
Not everyone has been so transcendent in their imagination. An uproar followed the initial announcement that the Park Theatre decided to cast a black actor as Jesus for the first time in the 82-year history of the Passion Play in this poor, culturally diverse community.
Five tour groups canceled their reservations. Others wanted to reschedule to a show when a white actor played Jesus. After a couple of vague death threats were phoned into the theater, two church schools canceled out of fear for the safety of their students.
After centuries of seeing Jesus portrayed in art and film and Sunday School books as a white, blue-eyed European, the idea of a black Jesus still jars many Christians.
Eric Hafen, the director of the Passion Play which runs weekends through April 20, said while there was no excuse for the overt prejudice, he could understand the apprehension of many prospective theatergoers.
Once people give it some thought, however, the idea of a black actor portraying a man from first-century Palestine "makes more sense than the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jeffrey Hunter," who has played Jesus on screen, he said.
The casting decision -- and the resulting publicity and controversy -- have forced people to re-examine the racial characteristics they attributed to the founder of Christianity.
For the most part, the answers coming back have been encouraging, said the Rev. Kevin Ashe, the play's producer.
In the first days after it became known that Desi Arnaz Giles would play Jesus, the theater received hundreds of calls and faxes from South America, Hawaii and everywhere in between expressing support.
On opening day, the audience of 700 gave Mr. Giles a standing ovation for his charismatic portrayal of Jesus.
"I was looking at him and I couldn't see color," said 73-year-old Mary Wengenic of St. Michael's Church in Germyn, Pa. "Yes, I knew he was black, but it didn't make any difference. He was Jesus."
Joseph Bukovec, who alternates the role of Jesus with Mr. Giles, said he knew intellectually Mr. Giles was going to be good, but he was not prepared for the emotional impact of a Christ that transcends race.
"That's the message, point blank," Mr. Bukovec said. "It says ... 'If you're a Christian, and you have any problem with this, you've missed the message.' "
For his part, the 34-year-old Mr. Giles said he is thankful the racial feelings have surfaced.
"It really gave me an opportunity to put my Christianity to the test, dealing with those who hate me," he said.
By turning the other cheek, "It's allowed me to testify to the true meaning of being a Christian. ... Now is a chance to show Christianity in a positive light."
Dressed in an "Eracism" T-shirt before his opening performance, Mr. Giles said his hope was that the Holy Spirit would shine through him on stage.
"The color of Christ has no bearing on what the true message of Christ is about," he said.
That message was not lost on John Behrend, an older member of the Immanuel Lutheran Church group from Bristol, Conn.
"I never considered him black until this here came up," Mr. Behrend said of Jesus. "And he could be."
Photo by The Associated Press
Desi Arnaz Giles portrays Jesus in The Passion Play at the Park Theatre in Jersey City, N.J. Some tour groups have canceled their reservations in response to Mr. Giles' casting and the production has even received death threats. But other theatergoers have been mesmerized by Mr. Giles and his performance. He himself says the conflict has allowed him to exercise his own Christianity by turning his cheek on the racism directed at him.
Photo by The Associated Press
Desi Arnaz Giles not only plays the role of Jesus but practices what Jesus taught: turning the other cheek, in Mr. Giles' case, to bigotry from Christians refusing to accept him in the part.