WICHITA MOUNTAINS WILDLIFE REFUGE, Okla. (RNS) — Before the sun sets at a remote mountain attraction called Holy City of the Wichitas, Jesus and a band of white-winged angels walk through a crowd gathering on the hillside.
Nobody seems fazed.
But a few hours later, a different visitor — this one an uninvited guest at the 93rd annual “Prince of Peace” Easter pageant — causes a stir among the men, women and children seated under the stars on blankets, lawn chairs and pickup beds.
An enormous buffalo wanders uncomfortably close to a group of spectators from the First Baptist Church of Olustee, diverting their attention from the donkey accompanying Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem on the living stage before them.
“Hopefully, there’s not a herd,” Morgan Adams, the southwestern Oklahoma congregation’s pastor, quips as he lifts his young daughter into his truck.
Oklahoma’s version of old Jerusalem — mixing rough stone structures resembling those in the Holy Land with occasional sightings of buffalo and longhorn — provides the setting for what organizers describe as North America’s longest-running outdoor Passion play. Although the public is welcome to tour the grounds and visit the gift shop year-round, the yearly performances draw enough of a crowd to disrupt the wildlife.
Scores of these religious dramas still occur around the world, including in the U.S., with names such as “The Great Passion Play” in Eureka Springs, Ark.; “The Thorn” in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and “The Passion of Jesus in Music, Word and Light” in Shakopee, Minn.
The Oklahoma play began in 1926 — the dream of the Rev. Anthony Mark Wallock of the First Congregational Church in nearby Lawton.
In the mid-1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. Agriculture Department granted 160 acres to build the Holy City site, about 100 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. The Works Progress Administration handled the construction in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
In its early days, the "Prince of Peace" pageant featured 3,000 performers and drew audiences exceeding 200,000 to an all-night showing culminating in an Easter Sunday sunrise resurrection, organizers recall. Admission has always been free, with donations accepted.
These days, the two performances — on the Saturdays before Palm Sunday and Easter — start at 8:30 p.m. and last until close to midnight. Spectators spread out on blankets or recline in lawn chairs they bring to add a little comfort to their natural seats on the hillside that faces the set.
“I enjoy the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ and all the angels and the resurrection because that’s what we’re here celebrating,” said Junetta Japp Bradley, 60, a Houston-area Christian who first attended the play as a junior high school student. She came this past weekend (March 24) to honor her late father, Jack Japp, a longtime pageant crew member who died last November at age 86.
However, the cast size and the crowds aren’t what they once were. A few hundred costumed cast members and an estimated 13,500 people attended last year’s Easter weekend showing.
“The cool part about it, every year we have a challenge getting cast members. But the thing that I do know, and that I trust, is it’s in God’s hands,” director Alan Corrales said Saturday as he scrambled to replace one of the 12 Apostles after James the Less became ill.
Corrales, 59, a member of Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, 200 miles away, joined the cast as a third-grader in 1968, playing a shepherd boy.
“It was a much bigger production then,” said Corrales, who grew up in Lawton. “I think we were still having close to 100,000 people on the hill.”
But after 51 years of involvement, he said he remains just as passionate about the Easter pageant — despite the challenges of keeping it going.
“If there are 14 people out there, we’re going to tell the story,” he said. “It’s all about Jesus.”
The Christ of the Wichitas — a Jesus statue dedicated in founder Wallock’s memory in 1975 — overlooks a chapel, pageant museum, gift shop and buildings with names such as Herod’s Court, the Angel House and the Upper Room.
Three wooden crosses sit atop Crucifixion Hill.
Inside a wardrobe room, one of the actors who plays Jesus — and, with long brown hair and a beard, bears a striking resemblance to modern-day depictions of him — explains how to spell his first name.
“Don’t put no ‘e’ on it, or I’ll hunt you down and kill you,” jokes Jorg Kidd, 45, a member of the First Assembly of God Church in Lawton.
“Behave yourself, Jesus,” Corrales urges with a smile.
Kidd, a recovering drug addict who's been sober since 1992, said it’s difficult to explain the feeling he gets when he sees the thousands of spectators on the hill.
“Last year, I looked up into the clouds, and it was a weird formation,” he said. “It was almost like it formed the face of Christ. That just let me know that he has his eyes on this, and he’s watching over it.”
Kidd’s 12-year-old daughter, Naomi, joins him in the cast, playing both an angel and the devil.
Fellow angel Lisa Green says this year’s pageant is a family affair for her as well, with her three children performing alongside her. Son Michael, 13, has roles as a temple guard and shepherd boy as well as appearing in the baby Jesus scene.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve got to run all over the place,” the teen said. “It’s kind of scary because I’m a little people-shy.”
Lisa Green, a Pentecostal Holiness church member, navigated around her costume’s extended angel wings to embrace her son. “I myself don’t go to church probably as often as I should, but I always heard that the house of the Lord resides within me,” she said. “If I can share that with people, then that makes me happy.”
From a control room, a dozen-person reading cast gives voice to the pantomiming actors. Through giant speakers and bullhorns, the dialogue and recorded music echo off the dark mountains surrounding the outdoor amphitheater.
Even though the main characters don’t actually talk, Corrales requires them to know the words.
That created a humorous situation in 2003 when Corrales — who had taken time off as the director — filled in as the disciple Andrew at the last minute.
A fellow actor was amazed when Corrales mouthed Andrew’s lines verbatim with no practice.
“Alan, that was really anointed,” the fellow Christian said before Corrales explained — with a grin — that he had portrayed Andrew from 1983 to 1999.
The cast includes people of all Christian denominations — or no Christian background — some driving hours to participate.
“In fact, we kind of laugh because one of our cast members a few years ago was actually a pagan priest,” Corrales said. “Well, guess what? He’s a Christian now.”
Before the buffalo came along, Adams and members of his church enjoyed posing for pictures with Jesus.
A few girls from the group were away at the time and disappointed when they learned that they’d missed Jesus.
But Jesus is never far away, the pastor responded — and it was clear that he didn’t mean the actor.