The Easter story, told by women
For more than 20 years, Olivia Woodford has been performing her one-woman Passion play, “The Heart of the Cross,” from the perspective of Biblical women. Interest in the women portrayed has evolved over the years, with a certain fictional book and movie becoming the tipping point.
Woodford, who lives in Durham, will perform “The Heart of the Cross” at three local churches during Holy Week.
In 1991, Woodford was living in Massachusetts and presenting an original play at her church every Easter.
“Suddenly I went, ‘You know, it’s the women who were witness to the Passion,’” she said, referring to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “Now it’s obvious, but back 20 years ago, it wasn’t. I thought I’d do it myself, for my church, but others there asked me,” Woodford said. She didn’t intend it as a ministry or annual event, yet that’s what it has become, she said.
Her own religious background includes a Catholic mother, Congregational father and classes at a Lutheran school. She never thought of the denominations as separate. Woodford started the theatrical process with Jesus’ mother, Mary, and then looked at other women mentioned in the New Testament, including those who traveled with Jesus. She also has plays about Mary’s birth story, Jesus’ first year of ministry and the last year of Jesus’ life.
The tipping point for interest in the women in Jesus’ life, Woodford said, came around 2005-06 with Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code,” the blockbuster adventure novel and fictional movie about the search for links between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
“Everyone had a thought about it, a conversation about it,” Woodford said.
She grew up with the impression of Mary Magdalene as the reformed prostitute, which was erroneous. The pope said as such in 1968, but it took a while to change in everyone’s mindset, she said. When she started performing the play, that was Mary Magdalene’s role.
“In 2005, overnight, every church, every denomination said, ‘You aren’t going to present her as the reformed prostitute, are you?’” Woodford said. She changed Mary Magdalene’s role to a different perspective, and another woman portrays the reformed prostitute. Other women characters are a girl who is cleaning the house before the Last Supper, Veronica who watches Jesus carry the cross, and Mother Mary, who prepares her son for burial. Mary Magdalene is portrayed at the Resurrection, and then Martha at Pentecost.
For the women’s perspectives, Woodford’s dialogue is about daily life and culture of the time, with daily tasks woven throughout the play.
“It lends itself to the audience’s feeling as if they were there, experiencing it along with me,” she said.
Woodford said over the years performing the plays about Biblical women, she has developed a much more personal relationship and connection to Jesus, Mary and all those who supported Jesus. For those churches where she performs “The Heart of the Cross,” Woodford said, no matter how liberal or conservative the congregation, the response is the same.
“The story is universal. The experience is universal,” she said. “I don’t have a message about doctrine. I believe that the story itself gives you an experience that will have you reconnect to your tradition in however you hold it.”
Woodford suggests bringing a tissue to the performance.