Passion for the Passion

An ancient town's dream is reborn in the Black Hills of South Dakota, with a play

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By Marion Amberg

Whenever Josef Meier walked on stage in his white robe, he seemed to transcend life. And no wonder: Before his death in 1999, Meier had portrayed the Christus (German for Christ) for more than 60 years in the famed Black Hills Passion Play.

Depicting the last seven days in the life of Christ, the Black Hills Passion Play in Spearfish, South Dakota, is a marvel of outdoor pageantry and religious drama. This centuries-old production, which made its American debut in Spearfish during the Great Depression, celebrates its 68th season this summer. It is the longest-running professional Passion play in the nation.

“I look at this as a mission,” says Charles Haas, who began playing the Christus in 1999. With Lookout Mountain as a backdrop, the play’s magnificent three-block-long stage readily transports viewers back to the days of Christ. All the characters and animals of ancient Jerusalem are here: donkeys, water girls filling jugs, flocks of sheep, Roman soldiers on white horses, unscrupulous merchants, and cages of doves.

Portrayed by an interdenominational cast of more than 150 people, the play’s imagery is both simple and profound. As the Last Supper fades to black, the Lord’s chalice begins to glow, the symbol of his blood illuminating the very essence of Christianity. Each of the 22 scenes — triumphal entry to Resurrection — unfolds into the next, with no intermissions or set changes.

When the Christus is carried into the tomb, the shrouded body imparts a personal revelation for many playgoers. “The Bible was no longer words; it became flesh for me,” one viewer said.

A classical form of theater, Passion plays originated in Europe during the Middle Ages as a means of visual theology to instruct the illiterate masses. The clergy originally performed the biblical roles — male and female — and the dialogue was originally in Latin. Around the 15th century, villagers took over the dramas.

“The plays were presented on wagons, similar to our parades today,” Haas explained. “It was an all-day event, sometimes more than one day. Our play is about two hours and 15 minutes long, depending on how fast the camels go.”

Families took up the cross and the script. They reintroduced the plays with spiritual elegance and dignity. Acting roles were passed down from generation to generation, and children grew up as understudies to their parents.

Only a handful of medieval Passion plays survive today, including the famous production in Oberammergau, Bavaria, an eight-hour spectacle staged every decade in fulfillment of a town vow made in 1633. Villagers had promised God they would reenact his Passion forevermore if the town was spared from a plague.

The style of play performed in the Black Hills, originally known as the Luenen Passion Play, dates to 1242, when it was presented by monks of the Cappenberg monastery in Luenen, in Westphalia, Germany. The actors included ancestors of Josef Meier.

Meier, who was born in Luenen in 1904, was the seventh generation in his family to appear in the play. As a child, he played minor roles or was part of the mob scenes. In a traditional steppingstone of Passion plays, Meier portrayed John the beloved disciple before ascending into the role of the Christus.

Meier was studying to become a doctor in the early 1930s when life took an abrupt turn. National unrest and spiraling inflation of the German mark hindered Germans from making their annual Lenten pilgrimage to Luenen. The future of the 750-year-old Passion play was at stake.

Meier led the endangered play to religious freedom. In 1932, the young man assembled an acting company and brought the drama to America. The play was initially performed in German-speaking communities. But Meier had a greater dream to take the Lord’s Passion across the United States. He translated the text into English, abbreviated the script to fit the American theater, and took the play on the road.

The nation was mired in the Depression. More than once, the company halted production and cast members found odd jobs to support themselves. In 1935 the actress playing Mary Magdalene fell ill, and Meier called a theatrical agent for a replacement. Clare Hume, a young and vivacious actress from Chicago, took over the role. She later married Meier and donned a new role: Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom she portrayed for more than 7,000 performances.

When the couple’s daughter, Johanna, was born, the family tradition began anew. “I was five weeks old when I appeared in the scene with Christ and the children,” says Johanna Meier della Vecchia, who now plays Mother Mary. “I was basically used as a prop!”

While the troupe crisscrossed the nation staging the greatest story every told, Meier scouted for a permanent home for the play. He had various offers, but each had a serious disadvantage, including climate. Then in 1937, while en route to California, Meier and his company were invited to Spearfish, a small town in the northern Black Hills.

From atop a hillside cow pasture, Meier looked down on the Widow Newton’s apple orchard. Voices below drifted up to him sharp and clear. Here was a natural amphitheater with stupendous acoustics, a necessary consideration in the days before amplification. The weather was delightful, the scenery gorgeous.

“Everybody thought he was out of his mind,” della Vecchia says of her late father. “This was no-man’s-land back then. There was a two-lane highway across the state, part of which wasn’t even paved. There were a couple of rodeos, and Mount Rushmore was under construction. But there was no tourism industry, basically.”

But Spearfish caught Meier’s vision, and a community Passion Play board was formed. The board built a 6,000-seat amphitheater and provided advertising; Meier took charge of the play, which he renamed the Black Hills Passion Play of America.

Here in a semiarid climate reminiscent of ancient Israel, Meier designed the 40- to- 60-foot-tall building sets and the massive outdoor stage that begins with City Gate and ends at Golgotha, a real hill the actors must climb. More than 10,000 people attended
the premiere season in 1939.

But the onset of World War II saw attendance plummet, and the play board faced financial hardship. Meier assumed the board’s debt, arranged a 10-year loan, and took sole control of the production. Granted extra gas rations as a goodwill tour during the war, the play resumed the rigors of traveling to stay afloat. From September until May, the production toured North America, returning to Spearfish for the summer.

From 1932 to 1964, the drama was performed in more than 650 cities in the United States and Canada. And from 1953 to 1998, the play inspired audiences at its winter home in Lake Wales, Florida.

The strain of shepherding the financially strapped production, however, was immense for Josef. “I worked hard all day on the play and then sat up half the night struggling with letters and other paperwork,” he told The Saturday Evening Post in 1943. “It seemed a hopeless struggle until one night in the middle of the play as I spoke the lines to Judas, ‘Do ye not worry about the tomorrow,’ it struck me that it was about time I took my own advice. I worked just as hard afterward, but I haven’t worried since.”

While 18 professional actors and four technical staff members head up the play, in Old World tradition the village is still involved. Approximately 150 children, teens, and adults from more than 20 churches in the Spearfish area volunteer at the productions.

For extras like Ian Umphrey, 10, acting in the play is both a family passion and a tradition. Grandmother Rosalie Aslesen, who began her Passion Play career as a young girl, plays Pilate’s wife, Claudia. Ian’s father, Glen, portrays a disciple, and his mother, Lorie, is a Herod girl. Ian is a shepherd boy who guides the flock across the stage.

Getting into the skin of the main characters, which are portrayed by professional actors, demands empathy and political insight into Jesus’ day. Mother Mary’s spirituality is balanced with the human emotions of a mother about to lose her son. Caiaphas, King Herod, and Pontius Pilate are depicted as real men with real flaws. The high priests are not presented as evil or villainous, but as religious leaders living in politically troubled times amid Roman occupation.

The Christus must be played with humility to succeed, Meier instructed Haas. Not that Haas will forget, falling three times nightly beneath the cross. Although the falls are staged, they inflict some pain.

Up on Golgotha’s 12-foot-tall cross, the actor endures pain as well. With no wires or harnesses to support him, Haas must contort his body and stand — feet crossed — on a small brace, with arms outstretched.

There is no gore or blood in the Black Hills Passion Play;the reality of the Crucifixion is conceived in one’s heart. “As an actor, I’m aware that audiences are anticipating the Crucifixion, the climbing up the hill to the cross,” reflects Haas on the 20-minute Crucifixion scene. “And that’s the struggle of our lives. But the glory of our lives is Christ at the Resurrection.”

Following the German tradition, Josef and Clare Meier passed the play’s mantle to their daughter, Johanna, in 1991. She has portrayed all of the female roles over the years, and now she directs and co-produces the play with her husband, Guido. From Luenen to America, it was an incredible theatrical run for Josef Meier, who died in 1999 at age 94.

“The Passion Play must not be operated as a business,” Meier used to admonish the cast and community. “If used for commercial exploitation, this facility will die like a vine without water.”  CD


Freelance writer Marion Amberg

Marion Amberg is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who writes frequently on topics of religious interest.