The top of the piece:
WAUCHULA, Fla. – With less than two hours until showtime, a man sits amid the backstage chaos and studies his image in a propped-up mirror. The eyes are grayish blue, the goatee trim, the long dark hair flecked with gray. Not there yet. He scoops another dab of makeup to continue the annual transformation of Mike Graham, now 58, into Jesus Christ, forever 33.
An assistant hustles over with a sky-blue robe that an anxious Mr. Graham wriggles over his bare torso and summer shorts. “Too little on me,” he says apologetically, working his way out of it. Someone else asks him to assess a young girl’s angel costume. “I’d like her to be glittered,” he says, before asking whether the child has been warned how to behave around the camels.
Then the man who plays Jesus for a living turns back to his imperfect reflection.
For more than two decades, Mr. Graham, a preacher, has directed and assumed the lead role in a gritty Passion play, “The Story of Jesus,” that unfolds 10 nights a year in the modest Cattleman’s Arena, in rural Hardee County. Across its dirt-floor stage come chariots and sword fights, miracles and betrayals, exotic animals and a cast of hundreds.
Later, readers learn about the play’s “long-suffering donkey.” There’s a “man in a ‘Sprayin’ & Prayin’ T-shirt” turning white cast members “a color called Sebring brown, a shade that Mr. Graham thinks approaches a Middle Eastern skin tone.” There are warnings against cellphones, gum and hanging out with the Sanhedrin.
In other words, the piece is filled with — at least to me — amusing images and anecdotes. And as someone who wrote a 1,500-word feature for The Associated Press several years ago on megachurches’ gigantic Christmas pageants, I can appreciate that.
But for all its excellent details on costumes, characters and camels, the Times article provides only shallow information concerning the faith behind the production — the “gritty” story, as the paper puts it. After the giggles, there’s not much to bite into here. This is not a meaty exploration of what inspires one man to devote so much of his time and energy to playing Jesus.
Graham is identified as a “preacher” and a former “guitar-wielding youth pastor,” but more specific information on his background and beliefs is lacking, except for a single paragraph that hints at the religion ghost:
Mr. Graham’s words seem rooted more in worry than vanity. Because he deeply believes that this play is how God wants him to spread the Word, his mind races with all the things that could distract from that message, and have: camels arriving a week late, a teenager texting on stage, a stray chicken flying out of Lazarus’s tomb. How about the time a couple of camera-carrying tourists wandered into the John the Baptist crowd scene?
The piece was written by a Times writer whose gig is taking readers “beneath news stories and into obscure and well-known corners of the United States.” That means the writer provides snapshots all over the nation. Still, I wish he had used — if just for a few paragraphs — a wider lens in this piece to put this Florida play into the context of Passion plays nationally. Are they on the rise? Are they a dying breed?
Anyway, please read the story yourself and let me know what you think. My mushy brain could be clouding my perspective.
Image: Screenshot of YouTube video associated with the story critiqued.