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Easter play returns for 33rd season

FARM LIFE — Christian actors face a unique challenge as members of the cast of “The Message of Easter.”

The outdoor drama, presented by the Piney Grove Baptist Church in the Farm Life community of Martin County, is in its 33rd season.

While the drama is a celebration of Christian faith, the story couldn’t be told without a few “bad guys” in the cast. To those performers falls the tasks of portraying Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, and the soldiers who taunt, whip and, ultimately, crucify the Son of God.

Soldiers remove the body of Jesus Christ from the cross in this scene from “The Message of Easter.” The outdoor drama began its 33rd season last weekend and resumes tonight in the Farm Life community of Martin County. (WDN Photo/Kevin Scott Cutler)

Jason Tate, Piney Grove’s youth minister, is cast in the role of Judas. But he insists it’s a role he relishes.

“It’s actually easier for me to play a bad guy. Human beings by nature are evil,” Tate said prior to a recent dress rehearsal. “The battle we all fight as Christians is to serve Christ, but we have that human nature pulling us in the other direction.

Judas did not set out to betray Christ, but he felt tempted like we all do.”

The role is pivotal in sharing the message of Christ, Tate added.

“Somebody has to play Judas, somebody has to betray Jesus,” he pointed out. “And when it comes right down to it, we all betray Jesus on a daily basis.”

Henry Williams is a member of the crowd that cries out for Jesus’ death.

“I egg the crowd on, get them to go against Jesus, that’s basically what I do,” Williams said. “It’s not an easy thing to do, being against Jesus, to say crucify Him.”

The hardest part is standing face to face with Jimmy Griffin, a friend and fellow church member who has portrayed Jesus every season in the production’s long run.

“It’s hard for me to look him in the eye and have to say those things,” Williams said. “Sometimes you say those things and all of a sudden your mind goes blank. I honestly, truly believe that you have to go into this in the frame of mind that you are playing a part.”

Williams, who was originally cast more than 10 years ago by the drama’s founder, the late E.T. Taylor, said he recognizes the importance of presenting the story as accurately as possible, however painful it may be.

“I love every minute of it. … I love this drama,” he said.

Tim Pope has gone from serving as a parking attendant to portraying the centurion. His role, too, can be a challenging one.

“The hardest part for me is giving the order in the whipping scene. You think about how you just gave the order to beat this man nearly to death,” Pope said. “You’re trying to portray what actually happened, so if there is someone in the audience who doesn’t know Him, you’re hopefully bringing somebody else to Christ.”

Bobby Stalls, who has played a soldier in “The Message of Easter” for several seasons, is the man who actually wields the whip against Jesus.

“My faith is strong enough that I know we’re doing this to show other people what happened,” Stalls said. “That’s a little sacrifice, to put yourself aside to tell this story.”

Stalls shared that a youngster once kicked him in the shin after a performance. But another encounter stands out in his mind.

“A little girl wanted to meet the soldiers, but when she started to come to me she stopped short,” he said. “We explained to her that all this happened, but not that night. She looked at me with her great, big, brown eyes and all of a sudden she walked to me and just gave me a hug. It was almost like she was forgiving me.”

“The Message of Easter” continues tonight through Easter Sunday beginning at 8 p.m. each performance For more information, call 252-792-2954 or visit www.messageofeaster.org.