In Drumheller, a town of eight thousand people, located in the badlands of Alberta, “the greatest story ever told” is being told again. Each summer, since 1994, among a wealth of hoodoos and dinosaur bones, the Canadian Badlands Passion Play has depicted the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as told in the Gospels of the New Testament. The play runs on a combination of grants, donations, ticket sales, and a cast of volunteers—Christ, Pontius Pilate, Gabriel, and Christ Understudy receive modest honorariums—but is not a church-basement production. It has an annual operating budget of nearly a million dollars, and is one of the region’s staple tourist attractions. The play’s aesthetic quality rivals those of the nation’s grandest theatre festivals, with smoke bombs, original scores, and nearly two hundred actors (mostly human, with a supplement of horses, dogs, sheep, and other animals), who perform in a naturally created amphitheatre that seats twenty-seven hundred spectators. The stars of the show are housed in trailers on-site, while the rest of the troupe stay in a campground, located ten minutes down the highway.
In February, 2017, I joined the play’s cast, in the role of Herod Antipas, a figure who, despite his significant architectural and political achievements, is remembered mainly for his complicity in Christ’s crucifixion. My reasons for sacrificing an entire summer to perform in this play—one I had seen only via its crescendoing online promotional videos—were intangible and vague, even to me: a combination of my interest in the ways art survives in hostile climates, my fascination with what must be one of the last publicly funded exhibitions of fundamentalism, and a desire to write about a community that possesses inordinate political power while remaining notoriously reclusive. It might also have had something to do with wanting to see a donkey trot a fisherman into the Holy Land, Judas touch his lips to the cheek of another man, and a saviour hoisted high above to have a lance threaded through his ribs, the torrent pouring forth like a punctured cloud that drenches with dark rain.
One afternoon, I made lunch plans with Jessica, the play’s co-director. I planned to ask her to confirm my theory that she was not religious—I’d noticed she did not bow her head during a previous day’s prayer, something I saw because I wasn’t bowing my head either. I solicited restaurant suggestions from the cast. Hardly any of the actors lived in Drumheller. Many were from surrounding cities and agricultural towns, and some commuted from as far away as northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Diabolos and I carpooled from Calgary each weekend.
Lead Drummer suggested Boston Pizza. Barabbas, surrounded by his gaggle of children, suggested A & W. Barrett, the playwright and Jessica’s co-director, said, “Get Vietnamese.”
“Which restaurant is best?” Jessica asked.
Barrett surveyed our surroundings. A dust devil swirled across the stage while long-winged birds circled above.
“The . . . Vietnamese restaurant?”
“Do they have vegetarian options?” I said.
Barrett squinted at me. His well-gelled cowlick was like the brim of a baseball hat against the sun.
“I’ve told you everything I know.”
Drumheller’s Vietnamese Noodle House, wedged between a Baptist church and the Tastee-Delite ice-cream shop, offered exactly one vegetarian option. “White roll,” the server told me. I was unsure if he meant the roll was white or was for white people.
I’d prepared a lengthy inquisition to get Jessica to admit her secularity—something with Obadiah trivia and recitations of the Song of Solomon—but she confirmed my suspicions readily. “I did go to church when I was really, really young, and it was so boring,” she said. “Last night, a cast member was telling me, ‘This must be really great for your résumé,’ and I was like, ‘Well, sort of.’ If someone is a Christian in Victoria, and I come across that person, they might have heard of it. But most people don’t even know what a Passion play is.”
I said, “Someone once asked me, ‘Aren’t all plays passionate?’” and we giggled at the brimstone that awaited the unaware hordes.
Jessica first came to the Passion play through a posting on an actors’ union job board. After this year’s production, she will have worked on the show’s direction for three separate seasons, to a combined audience of more than thirty thousand souls.
“Before you started at the Passion play,” I asked, “how did you imagine Jesus?”
“All the clichés,” she said. “A white guy, with a beard, surrounded by other white people. And flowing robes, for sure.”
These clichés are alive and well within the Badlands play, particularly in regard to the whiteness of the actors. Also, thanks to the unparalleled mastery of the costume department, the cast’s flowing robes were inexplicably striking—Caravaggio-esque, even—and I had spent entire afternoons hypnotized by the tattered strands of Demon Possessed Woman’s kaftan coiling in the summer breeze.
“I was quite nervous my first year,” Jessica said, “because I was worried I was going to be challenged. My first year, Pharisee with Cane wouldn’t take direction from me.”
This did not surprise me. We were, generally speaking, a conservative group. This season’s scandal was the casting of a female Holy Spirit, which outraged some cast members. There was also pushback to casting female angels and to dressing the male angels in rose gold and aquamarine.
“Pushback is to be expected,” Jessica said. “When you sign up to be in Seussical, it’s not going to test your beliefs.”
Our meal arrived, and I discovered my roll was both white and for white people: white rice paper wrapped around white rice noodles and white bean sprouts. “Not too spicy,” the server told me, smiling. He pointed to a jar of hot sauce sitting on the table. “Very spicy,” he said, his face dark and sombre. “Very, very spicy.”
In 2006, partly in response to declining ticket sales, the Canadian Badlands Passion Play began debuting a new script every five years, rotating through the New Testament’s Gospels. The years 2006 to 2010 were the wildly adored Matthew years; 2011 to 2015, the less loved though still successful John years. We were now into the second season of the precarious Luke era, a Gospel widely considered the weakest of the four.
Each new script must be approved by the script committee. The script committee is composed of three board members and usually a member of the local clergy, all of whom, the organization’s Board Policy Handbook states, must “subscribe to the basic teachings of the Christian faith as expressed in the Apostles Creed.” The committee maintains the power to not only supervise the writing of the Passion play script but “approve the intent and use of the script.” According to Barrett, the script committee expressed serious reservations about having the Holy Spirit written as female. Barrett revised the script to obscure the role’s gender, allowing the committee to grant approval as they tarried in male-normative assumptions until auditions, where Barrett immediately cast a woman.
Jessica worked another contract the previous summer, so this was her first time directing the new script. I asked if she liked the play.
“It’s hard,” she said, her voice getting an octave higher with each ensuing sentence. “It’s an interesting one. It’s very different. I think there’s a lot of threads that I’m not one hundred per cent sure what their purpose is.”
“At the beginning of the season, we had no idea what the Holy Spirit’s role was. How does she affect Jesus? How does she affect everyone else? Gabriel we haven’t figured out yet. I just don’t know what his role is in this script. Are the voice-overs the best way to tell this story? And the Dark Angels—what are they?” She took a breath. “I don’t doubt that it is a good show. But I think we have a few more years to finesse it.”
Once we began rehearsing the second act, I grew concerned that no one outside those fluent in the Bible would appreciate our play. I found this especially troubling since not many Christians—our presumed audience—have read the Good Book. “How long did Jesus stay alive after coming back from the dead?” I overheard one high-school-age Villager ask another in the lineup for iced tea. “Three days,” the other Villager answered. “Or maybe it’s a week—Sunday to Sunday. No, wait—forty days. Isn’t that what Lent is? When God lent us His son.”
Even senior members of the cast were perplexed. “Which of you is older?” Jessica asked Jacob and Isaac during our most recent rehearsal of the genealogy sequence. The father-son combo answered with wide-eyed silence.
“There’s an old joke about us Catholics,” Diabolos told me one morning on our ride to Mass, “that if you asked us to look up the Book of Acts, we’d go, ‘Is that Old Testament or New?’” I laughed so loud I was worried I’d oversold it, until I remembered how gifted a thespian I had become.
Jessica believed, however, that a large portion of our audience was secular. “People come for the spectacle,” she said. “People come up to me after the show to say they’re non-religious.” It seemed strange to me that someone would weave their way through the play’s exiting hoards just to approach one of the directors and say, “I do not believe in eternal life,” but it seemed even stranger to believe that a non-religious person would be able to follow what is happening onstage. Why, pray tell, does Jesus sweat blood in the garden of Gethsemane? Why does Pontius Pilate kill Judas in one scene, only to have Judas enter in the next? Why does a voice-over of the Holy Spirit whisper to Christ, “Receive my power,” apparently instilling in Jesus the ability to enclose Diabolos in a Jedi force field?
A week earlier, my partner, Litia, accompanied me to Drumheller for the first time. I was worried the cast would be able to smell the original sin on her, so I made her stick close.
“I thought you people didn’t believe in cavemen,” Litia said upon spotting John the Baptist in his camel cloak. Then, witnessing the Angel Choir splendid in their pinks and blues, she asked, “Why is Gabriel dressed like a unicorn?”
I figured Litia’s assumption that the harbinger of Christ was half angel and half horned horse was as bad as it could get, until she watched scene 22c: The Transfiguration, in which Christ hikes up a mountain to be visited by apparitions.
“Is that Father Time?” Litia said, referencing a spirit’s elegant robe, gnarled staff, and unbound mane of silver hair.
“Are you high?” I whispered. “It’s Elijah.”
“What’s his power?”
“Power? He’s not a superhero. He’s a prophet. He foretold the future.”
“And there’s not an X-Men who does that?”
“This is a Passion play.”
“About that,” she said. “Aren’t all plays passionate?”
In the restaurant, my meal tasted exactly how the word “white” sounds. I opened the jar of hot sauce, and from the smell alone my eyes bloomed into poisonous red flowers. I pushed the limp rolls around until the rice paper broke and the bean sprouts surged across my plate. I asked Jessica how the directing team was dealing with the stress of living in the shadow of the previous year’s production.
“I wasn’t sure that people knew that,” she said.
By most accounts, last season’s production was financially problematic. In response, nearly the entire directing team was replaced, and many volunteer actors have not returned. Even Jesus, who was in his rookie year as Christ, was summarily demoted to Christ Understudy so a new, glamorous, having-guest-starred-on-Supernatural Jesus could be flown in from Vancouver. Vance, the executive director—a man I’d only ever heard be indomitably giddy about the play—told me, “All I want is magic. Last year, I didn’t get it. This year, I want magic.”
A few nights earlier, at a local bar, Pontius Pilate and Judas parsed the prior season’s problems. “Financially,” Pilate said, “last year didn’t go well because we didn’t market it worth a shit.”
Judas, whom the bar’s short-skirted staff positively swooned over, despite his only ever ordering water, placed the blame on a narrative unbalance: “It took forty-five minutes to get to adult Jesus.”
Pilate nodded. “There was a lot of dragging ass.”
“We started with the genealogy sequence,” Judas said, “and it took a while. It then went into bridesmaids talking, and, ‘Oh, look, there’s Mary,’ and Mary gets visited by Gabriel, and then she goes with Joseph, and then Joseph has to get it inn, and he can’t get it inn”—I’m unsure if the entendre is intentional—“so he gets a stable, and they go to the stable.”
“And then we had an angry British guy come out,” Pilate said, “and he’s like, ‘I ain’t got no room.’ And they’re like, ‘But we need a room.’ And he’s like, ‘Tuff shite. I ain’t got no room.’”
Judas rubbed his eyes. “And if you think the ‘Do Not Be Afraid’ song is boring this year, it was, like, five minutes longer last year.”
Pilate rested his forehead on the table. “Oh, it was awful.”
There had been substantial edits to this year’s script, but Judas, much to my dismay, still held skepticism about the pacing. “It’s not a clean-focused story,” he said. “Simon Peter starts the play with, ‘Empty nets, empty purse, whine-whine-whine.’ And then Jesus dies, and he has the exact same whiny, bitchy shit right after, meaning the last two and a half hours didn’t impact him at all.”
These misgivings are especially disheartening because, at last count, the play, including a half-hour intermission, was estimated to be running at three and a half hours.
Jessica devoured her final roll—something delicious and surf ’n’ turfy, bright shrimps glowing through the rice paper. “It has been stressful,” she said, “with that ever-looming cloud of ‘It needs to be good.’ But when I see our show, I can’t imagine wanting my money back. It’s such a spectacle.”
In response to last year’s shortcomings, Vance offered disgruntled patrons a money-back guarantee on this year’s performance. That maverick promise could equal more than ten thousand dollars in refunded revenue. “We’ve put all our eggs in one basket,” Vance told me, closing his office door. “If we don’t come through big—and I mean big—we’re done for.”
The organization’s bank account is empty, and this year’s budget has already been spent on new fishing boats, a sundeck for Simon Peter, and Gabriel’s four-figure three-metre wingspan. As Pilate told me one morning by the stables, “I was here for the first season, twenty-three years ago, and, the way things are going, I’ll be here for the last.”
“Isn’t there a version of this play that is an assured success?” I asked Jessica. “A God who is a white male, with a Holy Spirit who is a white male, with a Jesus who is a white male, totally not gay, doing stuff with his buddies, not gay? A Jesus who is wildly charismatic, compassionate . . . definitely not gay? Why aim to add art to a show whose patrons don’t want it?”
“I think they do, in the age of movies with multimillion-dollar budgets” she said. “I mean, you go watch Wonder Woman and then the Passion play needs to compare.”
“Jessica,” I said, “you think the people who watch the Passion play have seen Wonder Woman?”
Only from her recoil did I realize how dismissive I had become, my presumption that a belief in Christ turned you into the Elephant Man, unwanted and unallowed in public. Like somebody can’t enjoy both X-Men and Elijah as, admittedly, I once did.
Behind the restaurant’s till, the teenage hostess turned up the radio on Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” Jessica took her last, perfectly seasoned bite, and I asked if she considered herself a feminist.
“I’m not like—,” she said, raising a clenched fist.
“What does this mean?” I said, repeating the gesture.
“I mean, I don’t go to rallies, but I think I am.”
“Do you think the Passion play is a patriarchal environment?”
In relation to the script, Jessica admitted that most female characters had been sidelined to male storylines. “But in the directing team, I’ve never felt my voice is less than someone else’s.”
“Then why does Barrett always speak after you when you two address the cast?”
“Barrett and I have talked about this, and it’s because he finishes with something faith-based.”
“The cast prays, like, all the time. How many times do you think a woman has led that prayer?”
“No,” she said, “Midwife 3 led it once. What I notice is that it’s always the same three or four people. Like, give someone else a chance.”
“But isn’t that the definition of a patriarchal society?” I ask.
Jessica shrugged. And what was I supposed to do? Tell her that what she believes is wrong despite her having lived it? Demand her argument give way to the infallibility of my own? At some point, the path of logic and belief inevitably forks. Is it better to slow-clap the enlightenment of those who take the former route or to envy the wide-eyed wonder of those who elect the latter? I shrug back.
Earlier in the month, there was a stage combat call for the rehearsal of scene 12: Calling of Simon Peter/Parable of the Lost Son. The scene concluded with Jesus crowd-surfing from his fishing boat into the awaiting arms of the seaside village. The crowd assembled to perform the hoisting was composed of able-bodied men—which is why I found myself in the cafeteria with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, who, along with Mother Mary, composed the entirety of the play’s multi-scene female characters. As we drank Twinings Earl Grey and morning-old coffee, I asked them their thoughts on the cast’s objections to a female Holy Spirit. “Pharisee with Cane,” I said, “called it a ‘New Age-y attack.’”
In astounding unison, they rolled their eyes.
“Typical,” Susanna said.
“What’s the big deal if the Holy Spirit is a girl?” Joanna added. “Like, do people really think the Holy Spirit has a . . . you know.”
Mary Magdalene stared into her paper cup. “The Holy Spirit is a spirit. It’s right there in the name.”
Midwife 3 was seated at the table behind us, studying her script. I could tell by how her irises stayed still that she was no longer reading.
“But doesn’t that same logic apply to God?” I asked Mary Magdalene. “What’s making Him a Him?”
“Sometimes,” Susanna said, her eyes smouldering like lanterns turned low, “when I’m speaking with God, He is a woman.”
It is difficult for a non-religious person to understand how subversive this sentiment is. To call Him a Her is not simply an expanding of definition—it concedes a level of fallibility in those who have written what we should believe and how we should believe it. Because if God isn’t a dude, why has He been such a bro to us: employing us as popes, enshrining the ownership of wives within the Ten Commandments, and declaring the use of condoms a mortal sin?
Mary Magdalene nodded. Joanna was in such agreement that she raised her paper cup in a gesture of “Hear, hear.”
Midwife 3 closed her script and shook her head.
I asked the three women what they’d think if next season’s Jesus was cast as female. Mary Magdalene chewed her lip. “But the Bible says Jesus was human. And humans have to either be a man or a woman.”
“But what’s the difference?” Susanna said. “You think He was actually white? But we have no problem pretending He was. Jesus being human is the important part. Who cares if He is She?”
Midwife 3 took Susanna’s question as an invitation and approached our table. “Such an interesting conversation,” she told us through smiling teeth. “But the Bible clearly says ‘He’ in reference to the Holy Spirit, God, and His son.” She then echoed herself: “His son.”
“But isn’t that just a translation thing?” Susanna said, and Midwife 3’s smile widened at Susanna’s open insubordination. God’s male gender largely is a product of the Bible’s English translation, since English doesn’t have a gender-neutral pronoun. Previous versions of the Bible written in other languages allowed the use of masculine pronouns to describe God without prescribing gender. Also, as Carpenter 1 pointed out to me, in the Hebrew Bible, the pronoun used to refer to the Holy Spirit is categorically feminine.
“It’s fun to imagine,” Midwife 3 said, her smile inflating to near-burstable proportions. “But ‘imagining’ can get you into trouble.”
From outside came a raucous clamber: the cast had either lifted the Lord or dropped Him.
In my previous, hedonistic life, I would end each interview by asking, “Do you have any questions for me?” However, in my current life of theatrical religiosity, I’d done away with it, for fear I would be asked, “Do you believe in God?” But as Jessica and I waited for the bill, she said, “Are you enjoying being in the play?” and somehow this question was even more complicated. I said that the play had a tenderness I never expected, that we were beautifully reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: our little group of mechanicals, rehearsing in the thickets, planning our big show, and wringing our hands white with the worry that no one would come.
“But,” I told her, “at some moments, I feel profound loneliness. I feel I’ve really connected with somebody, and then something comes up—like bike lanes—and it shows how far apart we are.”
The Canadian Badland’s Passion Play is one of the kindest, most welcoming environments I had ever been in. Like when, without my asking, Clarinet Player halved her granola bar with me, even though the day had been long and brunch quite meagre. Or when Doubting Thomas loaned me his script when I forgot mine, damning himself to be woefully lost for the rest of rehearsal. Or when I approached Diabolos at the campfire and, my eyes welted with tears, asked if he thought it was possible for someone to be born without a soul, and he, with neither hesitation nor reflection, put his hand on my knee and said, “Never heard something so silly.”
The Canadian Badlands Passion Play is also one of the cruelest environments I have ever been in. Chuza told me he was reading a book that proved Christians are responsible for all positive aspects of civilization—everything from hospitals to universities, aqueducts to post offices. Roman Soldier informed me it was morally wrong that Litia was physically stronger than me, since I would therefore be unable to protect her. Herbalist decreed that unwed partners should be barred from church, a barring that would include none other than Roman Soldier and his girlfriend, Daughter of Widow of Nain.
Ever since I agreed to spend all summer with Jesus H. Christ, who repeated ad nauseam that we shall all be judged, I realized how inept I was at separating good from bad—the two now striking me as inextricable.
“What about homosexuals?” I asked Diabolos during our carpool from Calgary. “Why can’t they get into heaven? That’s something we mortals would call a human-rights violation.”
“I have no idea if they get into heaven,” he said, turning down our campground’s gravel road. “Or anyone else for that matter. That’s not for me to decide. All I need to do is be merciful to others, because I know I’ll be in need of a lot of mercy myself.”
The man who does decide if the L.G.B.T.Q. crowd get through the pearly gates (at least according to Catholic theology and newspaper comic strips) is Simon Peter, who, as we pulled into the campground, was hacking through the rind of the largest watermelon I have ever seen—an ovoid the size of a Galapagoan turtle.
From her trailer, Baptizee 4 cranked Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” to a volume that shattered the birds out of the canopy. The electric guitar marched into the first verse, and three Villagers from neighbouring trailers emerged to dance alongside her.
“Prepare yourself, you know it’s a must / Gotta have a friend in Jesus / So you know that when you die / He’s gonna recommend you / To the spirit in the sky.”
The women improvised actions to go along with the words: “Friend” was a self-hug, and “Jesus” was the unfurling of your arms to crucifixion pose; “Die” equalled a thumb dragged across the throat.
During the musical interlude, Baptizee 4 sashayed over to Simon Peter. He stopped cutting the watermelon, now absorbed in the suppleness of her air guitar. She shrugged her tank-topped shoulders, limboing deeply to play the high chords, and her neck and chin stretched into a single long line.
The drum roll cued, the lyrics returned, and Baptizee 4 uprighted and strutted back to her awaiting entourage, while I thought about every bad thing I’d ever done that I knew I’d get away with.
“Never been a sinner, I never sinned. / I got a friend in Jesus.”
Simon Peter’s knife hovered, the red dripping off the blade.