"Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!"
The finale of The Passion in Woldenberg Park.
As I reached the edge of the crowd at The Passion: Live
in Woldenberg Park tonight, the audience's response to Pontius Pilate (Seal) caught me off guard — a scripted moment, I realized a split second later, but nonetheless a strange one to encounter on the banks of the Mississippi in the Year of Our Lord 2016. In this sense, it was emblematic of the entire production, at least as it appeared on the ground in the French Quarter and the CBD: a series of clashing sights and sounds to match the most jarring mashups of Mardi Gras.
I arrived late to the gleaming stage, with the riverboat Natchez
as the backdrop, because I'd decided to join the procession of a 20-foot-long illuminated cross — #KreweofJesus, the local Twitterati ribbed — from a point near my apartment on Royal Street. As a band of revelers amassed behind the bearers, a second line without the brass, a chant of "Jesus! Jesus!" went up; meanwhile, a man wearing little more than a Speedo and a blue cape printed with the Savior's face twirled alongside the parade, eliciting expressions of shock from well-to-do diners in the Rib Room. (Seeing him a short time later in Jackson Square, a visitor from Minnesota covered her child's eyes: "Please don't look!")
As the familiar accordion effect took hold, the mass surged, stopped, and pressed forward again, to the point that a headlong rush toward Decatur Street began to resemble a disaster movie's climactic stampede. "Screw the tour tomorrow," I overheard one woman say ecstatically. "We just did it!"
In the end this was a made-for-television event, designed to sell advertising slots to Walmart and God's Not Dead 2.
As for the operator of one such tour, Haunted History Tours' Sidney Smith, The Passion was just another event that brought an influx of people to the Quarter, though not necessarily for his business. He seemed sanguine.
"I relinquish the space to the higher power," he said, glancing up at the klieg lights illuminating the Square for FOX's cameras. "So to speak."
He had only recently heard of the production coming to New Orleans, and had no plans to watch, much like the Brennan's staffer, Kirsten, and her friend, Sarah, I'd met during a procession rehearsal earlier in the day, as the restaurant's Sunday brunch service was coming to an end.
"I don't know if it's appropriate to call it 'morbid curiosity,' but yeah, I might check it out," Kirsten said, as a young busker displaced by the parade's police escort beat impatiently on a plastic bucket. "It's Madea Does Easter
,'" Sarah added, laughing.
Whether or not the telecast cleared the bar set by host Tyler Perry's introduction — "Something special is in the air as New Orleans becomes our Jerusalem" — it was the evening's procession that seemed to capture both the spirit of the event and something of the city's merrymaking. In the controlled environment of the Woldenberg Park "arena," as the producers termed it, the effect was more muted, as though cleaned up for a national audience. (Just yesterday, the staging ground had been a mud-flecked, manure-scented work-in-progress, with a tugboat belching its way upriver attached to a massive barge.)
An afternoon rehearsal for The Passion, as the 20-foot illuminated cross was carried through Jackson Square.
Trisha Yearwood nailed her closing number, a moving cover of Lifehouse's "Hangin' on Another Day," and the audience rejoiced (politely) as Yolanda Adams and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band struck up "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," but in the end this was a made-for-television event, designed to sell advertising slots to Walmart and God's Not Dead 2
. The rough edges were sanded clean the moment the procession dissipated into the night somewhere along Decatur, as tourists returned to their hotels and residents to their homes.
Indeed, by the time I passed through Jackson Square again on my way home, the whole bizarre experience seemed to have dematerialized, as if I had dreamed it up. There were no beads or cabbage leaves still to be swept away, no tents to be taken down or leftovers to be packed up. As I walked past St. Louis Cathedral, a few crew members on The Passion
congratulated each other on a job well done, and a lone worshipper stepped onto the cobblestones holding a slightly wilted palm.