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Ordinary People Will Attract Thousands For Extraordinary Passion Play

Good Friday is one of the most important days of the year for Christians. And in downtown San Antonio thousands will line the street for one of the country’s most popular performances of the Passion Play, which depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. 

It begins at 10:30 a.m. and be presented at Milam Park across from Market Square Friday. There will be prayers and a choir at 10 a.m. You can find more details and a video at tpr.org.

Texas Public Radio’s Louisa Jonas went behind the scenes at a dress rehearsal to capture the emotion and dedication that goes into preparing for the performance.

The sun is setting in San Antonio’s Milam Park a few days before the Good Friday performance. But in these actors’ hearts, it may as well be 2,000 years ago. All of them are parishioners at San Fernando Cathedral and none of them are professional actors. They perform because they believe.

Credit Louisa Jonas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Kevin Espenshade plays Pontius Pilate.

The Passion Play begins with a trial where Pontius Pilate condemns Jesus to death for claiming to be the King of the Jews. Jesus is then marched through the streets where he is whipped and beaten. In this case, the actors will march from Milam Park to San Fernando Cathedral where Jesus is crucified. He'll stand on a platform six feet high with his hands tied to the cross. 

Mario Mandujano is the director of the Passion Play. He says to Jesus, "Go and get the cross. And then they come in right away,  past, all the way over here. Alright? Let’s do it. Let’s do it!"

They begin with the trial. Jesus is standing in the grass with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. The crowd taunts Jesus, and then Jesus, played by Luis Amaro, speaks. 

Credit Louisa Jonas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Luis Amaro plays Jesus.

"Tu lo has dicho. Yo soy rey. Para esonaci. Para eso vine al mundo. Para sertestigo de la verdad."

He says, “You have said it. I am king. That is why I was born. That is why I came to this earth. To be a witness of the truth.”

Mandujano says when casting the role of Jesus, above all he was looking for a sense of spirituality.

"I’m looking for somebody to be in church all the time, to be close to Jesus. It’s hard. It’s not just acting—anybody can do that, or I can bring a professional, but they don’t have the heart to feel to get into the part," he says.

Amaro’s been growing out his beard to play Jesus. He says it’s taken mental, physical and spiritual effort to prepare for the role.

"I never did exercise, I never eat well, I eat anything I wanted. Mario told me and I went straight to the gym. I started eating healthy breakfast, eating lean foods. I started learning my lines. I watched movies about it, just praying about it, going to church every Sunday. It’s been crazy," he says.

He says he was already thin before his diet, but still had a beer belly—and that that just wasn’t appropriate for Jesus on the cross. And he says three months of rehearsing as Jesus has begun to change him.

"I think before I was a little judgmental with people. They say don’t judge a book by its cover. I was a little like that I try not be any more like that," he says.

Credit Louisa Jonas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Crystal Vega plays Mary, the mother of Jesus.

  Crystal Vega plays Mary, the mother of Jesus. She’s 20 years old, and Mandujano has been directing her in the Passion Play since she was small. She’s played many of the roles, but still she was surprised when he asked her to play Mary.

"A lot of people think we’re professional actors when we’re not. We’re really just ordinary people who come here to church. It’s a really good feeling," she says.

The audience takes the Passion Play very seriously and often gets emotional, especially during the procession when Jesus is walked through the streets, is beaten, and falls to the ground.

"You can see—we’re walking on the way to San Fernando and people they’re crying. Even people, they’re mad at us. They’re yelling at us, ‘Stop! Don’t do that!’ They don’t want us to hit Jesus, to do anything wrong with Jesus," Mandujano says.

Kevin Espenshade plays Pontius Pilate.

"It becomes an opportunity for the spirit to talk directly to a person when they enter into this story. We can hardly begin to imagine what that was like. Every time I see the story, I think, wow, obviously we couldn’t have begun to endure anything like that," Espenshade says.

This Passion Play, performed in Spanish, will be seen well beyond San Antonio.  It’s being broadcast by Catholic Television San Antonio to audiences from Canada to Central America, as those celebrating the religious holiday remember the story behind it. 

Louisa Jonas is an independent public radio producer, environmental writer, and radio production teacher based in Baltimore. She is thrilled to have been a PRX STEM Story Project recipient for which she produced a piece about periodical cicadas. Her work includes documentaries about spawning horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds aired on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Louisa previously worked as the podcast producer at WYPR 88.1FM in Baltimore. There she created and produced two documentary podcast series: Natural Maryland and Ascending: Baltimore School for the Arts. The Nature Conservancy selected her documentaries for their podcast Nature Stories. She has also produced for the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Distillations Podcast. Louisa is editor of the book Backyard Carolina: Two Decades of Public Radio Commentary. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her training also includes journalism fellowships from the Science Literacy Project and the Knight Digital Media Center, both in Berkeley, CA. Most recently she received a journalism fellowship through Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where she traveled to Toolik Field Station in Arctic Alaska to study climate change. In addition to her work as an independent producer, she teaches radio production classes at Howard Community College to a great group of budding journalists. She has worked as an environmental educator and canoe instructor but has yet to convince a great blue heron to squawk for her microphone…she remains undeterred.