Immediate and understandable suspicion was that “Passion,” which the Thirteen had been rehearsing at St. Mark’s, was the intended target. Specifically, what could be taken as the most obvious transfiguration of the St. John Passion, dramatizing the final hours of Jesus’s life: This Jesus is Black, richly and compellingly embodied by a powerful bass-baritone, guest artist Jonathan Woody. (The irony is how noncontroversial such a casting actually is; Jesus was in all likelihood a dark-skinned man.)
But this simple casting choice might have been enough to push someone over the symbolic edge — to meet a display of grace with a demonstration of its opposite. To hang a noose outside of a church as a way of — what? Restoring balance? (Is this what William Blake meant by “fearful symmetry”?)
In any case, the transfiguration in Robertson’s “Passion” has less to do with casting one role than recasting the whole thing.
Roberston says he identifies Bach’s masterpiece, first performed in 1724, as fundamentally about social justice, identifying parallels with contemporary society that grew more glaring over the past year. He says he saw reflections of the now in the work’s warring factions; in the complicity and shirking of responsibility that led to the crucifixion; and, most explicitly, in the roil of systemic racism that fuels and frames the entire narrative.
(On that front, Robertson also subbed out antisemitic terms for more general ones such as “the crowd” and “the people,” and he hosted online discussions of anti-Judaism and antisemitism in the “Passion” with Bach scholar Michael Marissen as well as a panel of Jewish leaders.)
Director Timothy Nelson’s staging of this vision is spare, its scenes situated and resituated through an arrangement of chairs and bodies, light and shadows.
And although the gleam of Woody’s voice is occasionally muffled by his mask and lost in the heights of the nave, his Jesus sustains a powerful presence that guides the eye, in part because of the production’s primary symbol and singular chromatic feature — a purple hoodie in place of the purple shroud. (A black knit cap, meanwhile, replaces his crown of thorns.)
It’s hard to know what, quite, to make of the hoodie at first — the metaphors don’t quite match: The shroud was a mark of mockery, a dismissal of Jesus’s purported divinity. Hoodies, meanwhile, have come to represent not just the unjust presumption of Black men’s guilt, but also the subsequent reclamation of it as a symbol for the dignity of Black life.
But there’s something about the uncertainty of the hoodie, its unapologetic presence and the prismatic effect its color casts on the rest of this “Passion” that makes it more potent as a symbol, not less. Again, that’s how symbols accrue their power — by leaving out some of the meaning.
When the other singers, largely White but dressed entirely in black, shed their own colorful hoodies shortly after entering the frame, they drape them over their chairs with an ease that seems almost sinister. We can shed our identities, it seems to say. You can’t.
Musically, this “Passion” is a faithful and acoustically lively account, skillfully performed by 10 singers and 17 unseen musicians who play the nave’s acoustics like an instrument in itself. Heard through headphones, the ensemble emerges just behind you in the stereo field. It’s a subtle but impactful technical shift — the music not quite mediating the scene but gently pushing you into it.
The true transfigurations in the Thirteen’s “Passion” come not from any sweeping reinventions or wholesale renovations. They emerge from its dissonances.
How, for instance, to reconcile the silken ease and beauty of countertenor Clifton Massey’s performance of the aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” against the discomfort of its central ask in this context?
“To untie me, from the knots of my sins, my Savior is bound. / To completely heal me / of all blasphemous sores, He allows Himself to be wounded.”
What does it mean to behold a circle of non-Black performers pantomiming mob violence against the only Black body in the frame, only to later sing, “Who has struck you thus, my Savior, and with torments so evilly used You?”
Or take Verse 22 — the “hinge” of the Passion’s palindrome, where opposites compress into a molten core of wrong: “Your cell is the throne of grace,/ the sanctuary of all the righteous;/ for if you had not undergone slavery,/ our slavery would have been eternal.”
It’s not hard to envision George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and other Black men and boys whose deaths stoked calls for justice as martyrs. But the plea for White absolution that plays out? There’s something inherently point-missing about it. There’s an awkwardness, a cringe factor, a harrowing naivete that rears up through the text. It’s an emotional aggression that plays like a counterpoint to the physical violence of the Passion. (Do I dare coin the term micropassions?)
Perhaps the most profound aspect of “Transfigured” is its insistence that viewers experience the absurdity of our sincerely held expectation of absolution through complicity. “What “transfigures” here isn’t the Passion, per se, but the White experience of the Passion, transposed into a visual vernacular that’s viscerally upsetting. It’s a passion play, an indictment of injustice and an unflattering reflection of how we — the White we — respond as viewers.
How quickly the abstractions of the Passion can snap into something knowable — borderline documentary — just by changing the lens.
With its one casting tweak, “Passion Transfigured” demands that White viewers inhabit the Passion differently, more consequentially, uncomfortably: that they commit Judas’s betrayal, participate in Peter’s denial, sit quietly like an audience as the crowd turns violent, and hear it all couched in the beauty of Bach and the promise of salvation.
It calls on the group that I’ll call “Us” to not just hear the Passion, but to actually listen to it, regardless of who is suffering, regardless of who is singing.