I was sitting with two buddies from college in the upper deck of Wrigley Field. Midway through the baseball game, Kevin turned to me and said, "I'm directing a play that I think you'll like. It's about Jesus and Judas. I'll send it to you."
Kevin and I graduated from the Theatre School at Chicago's DePaul University back in 1995. All my life to that point, I'd wanted to be an actor.
During college, my passion gradually shifted from acting to ministry. When I graduated, I simply didn't have the drive to pursue an acting career, so I considered this chapter of my life closed. I went to seminary and then into youth ministry, while Kevin and most of my college friends pursued theater and film. I kept up with their work, reading plays that friends were involved with, and trying to attend as many as possible. But Kevin's project would be different.
The play he sent me, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, was named one of the Top 10 plays of 2005 by Time. The play is set in a courtroom in Purgatory and centers around the trial of Judas Iscariot. Judas is in hell, and a renegade attorney brings his case before a judge and jury claiming that Judas has been unfairly condemned.
During his trial, key witnesses from history take the stand, including Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, Simon the Zealot, Caiaphas the Elder, Pontius Pilate, and Satan. It includes Saint Monica (Augustine's mother) as a foul-mouthed saint who revels in her role as a nag to God.
Jesus is there too, included as a hero.
Major themes of the play include despair, suicide, evil, and living with regret. It was a powerful play. Just reading the final scene brought tears to my eyes. I called Kevin as soon as I could. "Kevin, this is unbelievable! If there's anything I can do to help you with this thing, just let me know."
A New Role
Kevin invited me to a reading of the show. When the person who was supposed to read Jesus' part didn't show, Kevin asked me to read the part. Afterward I went out with Kevin.
As we were processing the evening, he asked about the date of my upcoming sabbatical. "Middle of March to the middle of May," I said.
He looked at me for a moment. "Our show runs from the middle of March to the middle of May. I think you should play Jesus."
I hadn't appeared in a play in 13 years, but there was a part of me that was excited to return to the stage. My wife and I had even talked about the possibility of my trying to do a play during the sabbatical as a way of doing something out of the ordinary that would be life-giving. But we realized that finding a play that fit the timeframe would be nearly impossible.
It felt like this had fallen into my lap. Plus I was eager to participate in such a unique play, with a powerfully redemptive message.
Kevin was not a religious person, but he decided that because faith was central to the play, it would be a good idea to have cast members talk about their faith journeys. So over the next week of rehearsals I had the opportunity to hear these urban twentysomethings discuss their faith, or lack thereof.
Their stories had a very common theme: in most situations, they had had an unpleasant interaction with a Christian that had soured them on organized religion.
One cast member recalled being "outed" as a Jew at her Christian private school, and how the teacher explained that she was going to hell. Another talked about being in high school and showing up for an advertised "fun night" at a local church with a friend and having a great time in the gym … until the "inspirational speaker" came out and began preaching. He felt duped.