"It's not just a play . . . it's a pageant," said Francisco de Araujo, excited about his long-term project which will reach fruition next month in Jerusalem. "It's drama, it's dance, it's ballet, it's great art. It's a concept of joining the arts together to make a kind of production that will live in the soul of the pilgrim that comes to search out his faith."
Araujo, a Washington-based musician, playwright and entrepreneur, stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater to tell invited guests about a passion that has preoccupied him for years: "The Passion Play of Jerusalem," a three-hour dramatization of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ that will have its world premiere on Aug. 2 in an outdoor amphitheater on Mount Zion with the city of Jerusalem as its backdrop.
"It's one of the most gorgeous places in the whole city," he says. ". . . It gives me one the feeling of being between heaven and earth."
Putting on a passion play in Israel could just as easily give one a feeling of being between the devil and the deep blue sea. Many of the traditional passion plays, notably the ancient one at Oberammergau, have been cited as causes or irritating factors in the development of anti-Semitism -- not an enterprise one could expect to see flourishing in Israel. Araujo says he has taken extreme care to avoid such problems: The leaders of the numerous religious denominations in the area were sent copies of the script, and Araujo revised it "six or eight times" in response to various criticisms.
"Did you get good cooperation from the government?" asked one of the invited guests, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich).
"They're leaving us alone, and that's cooperation," said Araujo.
Once it becomes established, its supporters hope, "The Passion Play of Jerusalem" may attract up to 40,000 tourists a year to Jerusalem -- during the period from August to the end of October, which is not normally a heavy Christain tourist season. "Anything that will bring 40,000 pilgrims into the country each year -- why not?" said Araujo.
Actually, two plays are involved in the project: a one-hour Nativity play which will be seen on the Shepherds' Hill at Bethlehem, and the three-hour Passion, which will be shown on the site of the house of Caiphas. Both amphitheaters seat about 800 people and there will be a total of about 50 performers of each play each year -- so 40,000 tickets can be sold in a year. A ticket that will give the bearer access to both shows will have a face value of $60, but for the first year they will be sold at a discount price of $40.
The business side of the project is handled by Frank J. Parsons, president of The Passion Play at Jerusalem Inc., who has supplied about 90 percent of the project's funding. Parsons, who lives in Birmingham, Ala., has a tour company specializing in Holy Land travel. He said that the ticket price was "competitive for the tourist market. . . Oberammergau can cost you up to $350 with extras.
"We don't want to think of it as a money-making venture," he said. "I hope I can get close to breaking even in two years, but that's not really what we had in mind."