After a decade and a half of captivating audiences in the Easter season, 2017 will be the final year of Maranatha Assembly of God Church’s “Witness Messiah” performances. The performance, an intense dramatization of the biblical Easter story (often called a “passion play”), will run the weekends of March 31 through April 2 and April 7 through 9, and then no longer.
“It’s in its prime, and I don’t want this ministry to go past its prime,” Robert Headley, Maranatha pastor, said.
The performances got their start 14 years ago, shortly after Headley arrived at the church. He’d dabbled in drama while working in youth ministry in East Bethel, and the first year Maranatha put on a show, it was called “Witness Martyrs.” That year, 37 people from the church got together to put on a series of vignettes about different Christians who had been killed because of their faith. The next year, the church transitioned to “Witness Messiah,” which has grown every year since into a bigger, more affecting production, drawing community members and people from all around the metro to the church.
“This year, we have almost 200 people in the cast and crew,” Headley said.
The phenomenon surrounding the performance, Headley believes, is linked with its feeling of reality.
“It’s not a typical, quote unquote, passion play,” he said. “‘Witness Messiah’ has a little bit of an edge to it.”
That edge flows from the play’s authenticity – both in the technical portrayal of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and in the performances of the people in the show.
“There isn’t the emotion that is poured into it like there is here,” said “Witness Messiah” director Gayle Ferderer, who first joined the production as an actor before transitioning to director five years ago.
Headley attributes the emotion to the faith of those involved. For them, they’re not portraying a distant event – they’re recreating and reacting to the core of their religion, and the audience can feel their sincerity.
“The main reason we even exist is to tell the story, the true story, of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.
None of the performers are really actors, he explained. “We took regular people and pulled out of them something that feels very real (on) the stage.”
“Most of the cast gets so wrapped up in what they’re doing that they’re not acting,” she said. “They’re just being themselves and reacting the way they would react.”
Headley also believes the technical aspects of the production help immerse audiences in the world of Israel surrounding Jesus’ death. Some passion plays make use of symbolism or theatrical euphemisms when it comes time for the gorier elements of the lead-up to the crucifixion. Maranatha attempts to portray a first-century A.D. crucifixion as a semblance of what it was – violent and graphic – so that believers and nonbelievers alike can be confronted by the weight of Jesus’ sacrifice.
“We want people to get a good idea of what it might have been like,” Headley said.
The show is bloody, and the lynchpin of the production may be when the actor playing Jesus is hoisted upon the cross. In his East Bethel days, Headley was never satisfied with passion plays because the moment in which Jesus is hung on the cross never felt real; most plays that he saw used ropes or some sort of harness to hold the actor aloft. He won’t give the secret for how Maranatha achieves the illusion that its Jesus has really been nailed up other than to say that he got assistance for the method from some helpful people at outdoor retailer REI.
“He looks like he is nailed there,” Headley said. “It grips you. It’s very intense.”
Over its theatrical lifetime, “Witness Messiah” has touched hundreds of audience members with its portrayal of the Easter story, but Headley and Ferderer said it’s also enriched the people who have been involved with its production.
“The cast and crew really become a family,” Ferderer said. “Just the relational piece is huge, but also as a Christian, it’s an incredible experience to get to sit at the foot of the cross, even though we know it’s acting.”
With audiences responding and a cast and crew still passionate about the project, why is 2017 the last year of “Witness Messiah”? Headley said that this year felt like a good time to wrap up the project – while it is still fresh and relevant – and to send out the parishioners who have gained new skills and boldness on the production into their workplaces and daily lives to spread the Gospel in new ways. He believes the play – and passion plays in general – are still effective ministry tools, but he also wants Maranatha’s witness to grow and evolve as society does.
“I think our world is changing, and that’s probably the No. 1 reason why,” he said. “It’s time now that we wrap all of this up.”
Headley said he’s excited to continue working with the congregation to use members’ gifts for God’s glory.
“We’re going to focus on what we do well and on doing it well,” he said.
For Ferderer, who first joined the cast nine years ago because two of her kids wanted to get involved, closing the book on “Witness Messiah” will be bittersweet, but she’s happy with what the church put together.
“It’s very rewarding to take this motley group of people who show up the first week of January and guide them toward this group that does exactly what they need to do,” she said. “I would have done this forever, but there’s a time and a season for everything in life.”
“Witness Messiah” will be shown at Maranatha (24799 Forest Blvd. N. in Forest Lake) at 7:30 p.m. March 31 and April 7, at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. April 1 and 8, and at 3:30 p.m. April 2 and 9. Tickets range from $6.50 to $10 depending on how many are purchased; they can be bought at the church office or online at witnessmessiah.com. In addition to some graphic violence, the production also features some loud sounds and strobe-like light during one sequence.