A Back Pew Baptist Easter

When I was a  teenager my family were members of Rosewood Independent Baptist Church (the good ol’ RIB).  It was a rural church with a sizable membership. Sizable for a country chapel, anyway. My uncle, Wayne, was the pastor of the church for many years.  His wife, Edith, was a Sunday school teacher. She also coordinated and directed any and all special programs at the church.

In the early to mid-1990s it was proposed, by Edith, to do something very special for Easter.  Her plan, and my uncle’s, was to do a musical play about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  A Passion Play. She wanted it as realistic as possible, and, naturally, as inspiring and theatrical as possible.  We beat Mel Gibson to it by more than a decade.

Everything Aunt Edith did was big.  And theatrical. She glued sequins on her dresses.  She planted high-end artificial flowers in her flowerbed (she often had the most beautiful flowers in the snows of winter).  She was known to put Smucker’s and Welch’s jelly in jars and slyly pass it off as her own. She was a great person. In originating, staging, directing, and performing in our Passion Play, Edith, along with the rest of us, somehow, year after year, transformed it from Jesus of Nazareth to Jesus Christ Superstar.  But that’s showbiz, I guess.

The first year was a learning experience for all of us.  Clay, Edith’s son-in-law, was cast as Jesus. He was an obvious choice:  he was good natured, easy going, long haired, and trim. He didn’t have a full beard the first year, but he quit shaving and on performance nights, Kim, his wife, filled it in with make-up.

Kim, Edith, and Sharon, were crowd members.  This crowd was rounded out by various other members of the church.  Kim, Edith, and Sharon did all the singing, too. They had formed their own singing group some time before called Heaven’s Delight, so of course all the lyrical content fell to them.

Now, I was usually in the sound booth for the church services, but the play demanded all of us back-pewers (Edith, Kim, Sharon, Clay, and the rest of us) were to be front and center for a considerable length of time.  We weren’t forced, but we were strongly coerced. Uncle Wayne was left to man the mixing board, lights, and everything else in my domain.

For the play, I was a Roman guard.  Before it was all over with, Aunt Edith discovered this was a mistake.  With each successive year I was given reduced stage time and forced further from the stage until, within a couple of years, I was returned to the sound booth and kept completely out of sight.  

Me being blackballed from the stage was not entirely unreasonable.  More on that soon.

When I said we were realistic, I mean we were realistic as possible, especially for a rural church of amateurs performing a Passion Play.  After Jesus (Clay) was sentenced by Pontius Pilate (Allen, if I remember correctly), us guards beat the snot out of him. We were equipped with riding crops and Clay was padded thoroughly underneath his robes.  The only problem was that in our dedicated performances, sometimes a riding crop would land to the side of the padding. I think Edith eventually added more padding because it looked good for us to get wild with the whipping.

Uncle Wayne even built a cross.  Clay carried it for the crucifixion sequence.  We beat Clay some more heading to the stage. To get him out of the robes and padding, the other guards surrounded him while I stomped across the stage to run off the crowd members who ventured up pleading for Jesus to be released.  It all worked well until Edith, in her mid-fifties at the time, came up. I ushered her off and, just before I turned away, popped her a good one with the riding crop. On the butt.

This was Exhibit A for my future recasting.

Edith looked at me with tears welling in her eyes and a fierce grimace on her face.  As a heathen Roman guard, I smiled. The things Edith hated most about that moment were 1) the pain gave her the instant urge to use the restroom, and 2) she couldn’t rub away the sting on her left buttock in front of  nearly two hundred people.

After Edith went off-stage, no other member of the crowd risked begging for Jesus to be spared.  I had done my job, and well.

When Clay was ready, he was laid on the cross and slipped his hands through loops and rested his feet on a foot rest.  The cross was lifted, slipped into a stand and then secured to the wall. In the multi-colored stage lighting it looked gruesomely real, stage blood and all.  Eat your heart out Jim Caviezel.

The guards cast lots for the robes, and we even had fake rocks to throw at Clay/Jesus.  The rocks were made from silver duct tape. Clay wore a very real crown of thorns that nestled perfectly in his thick flowing hair.  During rehearsals, us guards had made a game of trying to get the rocks to land on Clay’s head like a primitive form of basketball. When a fake rock snagged a thistle and actually cut Clay and made him bleed, we were banned from playing that game.  During actual performances we pelted his torso. Sometimes his face, but that was purely by accident. Honest.

After Jesus gave up the ghost and was speared, we took him off the cross.  At stage Left was the tomb (it’s astonishing what can be with floor tiles).  A rock was slid into place and the audience was treated to more songs and the anticipation of the Resurrection. 

Here’s where Exhibit B for my recasting surfaced.

Uncle Wayne recorded the final dress rehearsal before opening night.  He did this for people who were not able to attend the actual performance and for people who wanted a copy of it.  

“Let’s do this like it was the real thing,” Edith had directed us at the last rehearsal.  Some of us (me) didn’t.

I was one of two guards standing sentry at the tomb.  While music played, we laid down and fell asleep. An angel (Michelle) came out and “rolled the stone away.”  Afterwards, we wake, see the tomb empty and run. The lights go out, music blasts, the lights come up and Clay/Jesus stands in the spotlight in shimmering robes with lights flashing, looking like something that hung from the ceiling of Studio 54.  Disco Jesus was always a big hit.

That’s how it was supposed to go.  That’s how it went during actual performances.  However, it did not exactly go that way during that final dress rehearsal.  

Well, it did go that way until us two guards laid down to snooze.  The lights shone on a beautiful still life of an empty cross offering a stirring moment of reflection and contemplation.

That, my friends, is the perfect time for schtick.

The Roman guards, in as authentic costumes as Aunt Edith could make, had capes.  Our Roman capes were not very long (we vied for authenticity). I sat up, removed my cape and spread it over my feet and legs.  When I laid down, I pulled the cape up, thus exposing my feet and legs. I wriggled my toes, rubbed them together as if they were cold and then sat up and spread the cape over my feet and legs again.  I laid down, pulled the cape to my chin and exposed my feet and legs once more. This meant I had to sit up and cover myself.

I repeated this routine about five times, maybe more.  Amazing miracle of miracles, not one person noticed. At least, not until the tape was reviewed the next day.

Aunt Edith thought it was hilarious.  Uncle Wayne laughed, too, but, ever the preacher, he called it ruinous.  

I called it improv.

To my knowledge, the tape was scrapped.  

Between the riding crop incident and the cold feet routine, Aunt Edith cast me as Pilate the next year.  My performance was influenced by David Bowie’s portrayal of Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ, so that should give you an idea of the creative differences between myself and the other Baptists.  

After the Pilate debacle, the sound booth was my home.  I only graced the stage of Rosewood Independent Baptist one more time, in the role of Satan no less.  

I complained that having me play the Devil was typecasting.

Aunt Edith said it was divine inspiration.