The Park Performing Arts Center will stage the 100th year of its internationally known production, “The Passion Play: The Musical,” and will feature a strong Bayonne presence.
Directing the play will be Bayonne resident Carl Gonzalez, and five of those performing are also from the city: Randy Barrier, Jonathan Drayton, Richard Dwyer, Sandra Gonzalez, and Jose Mediavilla.
Performances begin on Saturday, April 5, at the arts center, 560 32nd St., Union City, at 2 and 8 p.m. The story of Jesus’s last days on earth, it has been performed in Union City since 1915, and is the longest-running passion play in the United States, according to theater officials.
“This theater production has appealed to generations of viewers both from the immediate area and to East Coast tourists who visit every year from as far away as Virginia and Canada,” said Community Relations Director Daniela Thome.
The play originated in Union City when a group of German and Swiss immigrants of Holy Family Parish decided to present a passion play as an offering to world peace. Led by their pastor, Rev. Joseph Grieff, they modeled their play after The Passion Play performed in Oberammergau, Germany, since 1634. While the play in Oberammergau is performed every 10 years and is a major tourist attraction, the Union City play is performed every year and has become well known for its innovative and sensitive approach to religious and social issues.
In the 1980s, the script was adapted, with the help of the Bishop’s Conference for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, in response to criticism that passion plays carried a message of anti-Semitism. In the 1990s, the play featured an African-American actor playing Jesus.
The Union City version is also recognized for being staged by local community members and produced as part of an important local tradition. Several cast members have been involved with the passion play for more than 30 years. The current production also includes professional actors in many leading roles.
The 2014 Passion Play roster features David Murgittroyd as Jesus, Luisa Sauter as the Virgin Mary, and Bruce Barton as Pilate. Other cast members include Arlene Ng, Joseph Bukovec, and Newton Duarte, and an ensemble cast of more than 20 performers.
Besides Gonzalez, the creative team includes Luisa Sauter as musical director.
“I didn’t expect it to be so moving personally. But it really ended up being a very emotional and moving experience the first year. And I wanted to come back for more.” – Sandra Gonzalez
Gonzalez, a sixth-grade language arts teacher in the Bayonne School System, dabbled in theater as an extracurricular activity in high school and college.
“I honestly just love the experience,” she said. “The cast is great. My dad is the director.
All of us come back every year. It’s like a family reunion.”
Gonzalez does the play for another, more important, reason.
“I think it sends an important message,” she said. “That there are still people that have such deep faith. For me it’s like a Lenten journey. I have time to reflect on my own faith. I think it’s a good way for me personally to reflect on what the passion is about and remember where my faith came from.”
The first time, Gonzalez didn’t expect the experience to be so moving.
“But it really ended up being a very emotional and moving experience the first year,” she said. “And I wanted to come back for more.”
So strong is her love for the production, Gonzalez said, that she hopes to be involved with it “five or 10 years down the line.”
She said she feels the 100th performance of the Park Passion Play is an important one.
“It definitely shows the community is out there supporting the production, and it stresses the importance of the story as well,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been around for so long, it must be doing something right for the community and for the people who come and support it.”
Gonzalez said she has older coworkers who remember coming to see the production as children.
“It's kind of like a pilgrimage,” she said.
Performing arts center
The Park Performing Arts Center was originally built by a church parish, and became a nonprofit organization in 1983. It has hosted local, national, and international artists, as well as community events. The center also offers classes in the performing and visual arts. The programming is often reflective of the cultural ties and influences of North Hudson's Latin population.
Play dates, times, and costs
Scheduled to run from April 5 through 12, the play will be performed Saturday, April 5 at 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday, April 12, at 2 p.m., and a performance for students on Thursday, April 10, at 10 a.m.
General admission tickets are $25, students pay $15, and children under 12; $10. Discounted rates are available for groups. Tickets for the student performance are $7 per person.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, call (201) 865-6980 or visit parkpac.org.,
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.