Paulette Leaphart stood on a grassy knoll in Duncan Plaza at sunset Sunday, staring at a 20-foot white cross, trying not to cry.
The giant cross would soon set out for the French Quarter as part of Fox’s live national telecast of the religious musical “The Passion.” In part, it was a TV prop, its internal light powered by nothing more mystical than the car battery hidden inside.
But for Leaphart and many others who would accompany the cross, it was a powerful symbol of Jesus Christ’s pain and suffering in his final hours.
Leaphart knows all about pain and suffering. Six months ago, the 49-year-old from Biloxi, Mississippi, underwent a double mastectomy. Soon, she intends to walk across the entire country — shirtless — to raise awareness about breast cancer.
“I’m supposed to be dead, and I’m here,” she said.
She came to New Orleans “to help bear his cross, because he bore mine. And this is a great send-off for me, to walk across the country bearing my scars.”
Much of the two-hour broadcast of “The Passion” consisted of pretaped segments or live performances at Woldenberg Park, narrated by entertainment mogul Tyler Perry. The cast included Trisha Yearwood as Mary, Seal as Pontius Pilate, Chris Daughtry as Judas and Jencarlos Canela as Jesus.
Cameras cut to the cross procession only occasionally. Thus, TV viewers saw only a tiny fraction of the march’s drama, teamwork, tears and technical considerations.
And they saw none of the dancing devil.
Not just anyone could carry the cross. The 60 people who got to take turns shouldering the 285-pound burden were selected via Skype interviews with MaddyChristine Hope-Brokopp, a New York-based employee of the Dutch company that first produced “The Passion” in the Netherlands.
The chosen ones included preachers, uniformed Salvation Army representatives and Chris Barr, of Des Moines, Iowa.
Barr, his wife and their four sons, ages 10 to 17, traveled to New Orleans during spring break for a cruise. Realizing their visit coincided with “The Passion,” they applied to join the procession.
“To come down and be a part of this is unbelievable,” Barr said. “What Jesus has done in my life, and to be here with my family ... I hope a seed is planted that will be something the boys exponentially spread out.”
Another 150 or so people would walk in front of or behind the cross; they, too, had been preapproved and issued wristbands. Bystanders at Duncan Plaza who wished to join in were directed to the rear of the pack.
The cross is not the old rugged type of yore. Like “The Passion” itself, it is a thoroughly modern interpretation. Fabricated by the Solomon Group — a local production company that also built the elaborate stage at Woldenberg Park — it is an exact replica of the Dutch version. It consists of white corrugated plastic affixed to an aluminum frame. Padded boards along the underside cushion the shoulders of its carriers.
Hymns and revving engines
As airtime approached Sunday evening, Leaphart took a picture next to the cross with her jacket and shirt open to reveal her mastectomy scars.
Nischelle Turner, the former WVUE Fox 8 reporter who is now a correspondent for “Entertainment Tonight” and CNN, admitted to being “a little nervous” about filing live dispatches along the way.
Marchers took turns offering up prayers, round-robin style. One of several headset-wearing producers announced, “OK, guys, we are on the air.”
The first part of the telecast originated from Woldenberg Park, so the march wouldn’t start for several more minutes. Those on the left side, the “Salvation Army side,” were cautioned to leave a corridor where Turner could walk: “You do not want to run over our talent.”
The producer continued, “We’re live in eight minutes. At four minutes, we are going to hoist the cross and remove the stands.”
The marchers passed the time by quietly singing hymns. The motorcycle cops who would lead the procession revved their engines.
Finally, it was show time: “Everybody, cross up!”
A cheer. “Listen up. My first cue will be ‘Walk in place,’ then ‘Procession, march.’ ”
Nervous energy rippled through the throng. “Our tail is a little bit to the side,” a producer said. “Can we straighten out the cross?”
At 7:18 p.m., the procession set out. Near the New Orleans Public Library, Mark Durel blew an antelope horn like one described in the Bible. His intention was to “clear the path so the enemy would flee, and the angelic hosts can walk with the cross.”
Turning onto Canal Street, the procession encountered an interloper who was clearly not an angelic host. He wore red devil horns and pulled a wagon with a boom box. Gyrating provocatively, he was intent on making a nuisance and/or spectacle of himself by mocking the march.
The dancing devil tried to pull his wagon into the procession; a police officer quickly shooed him back to the sidewalk. Undeterred, he donned a kitschy cape bearing an image of Jesus.
He stopped to film himself writhing in front of the Golden Wall Chinese restaurant — and dropped his camera phone. The case shattered on the pavement.
Divine retribution, some might say.
The cross-bearers set a brisk pace. By 7:32 p.m., they had turned onto Bourbon Street, a drag that’s no stranger to big crosses. Street evangelists plant them every year during Carnival, earning more jeers than converts.
But this was a very different cross, under very different circumstances. It came with a police escort and an ever-growing entourage.
Revelers cleared from the streets stared or filmed the fast-moving procession. Some were underwhelmed. The cross, carried horizontally like a casket, looked more impressive from above than at eye level. A beefy man clutching three green plastic Hand Grenade drinks asked, “This is it?”
Someone else shouted, “Where Tyler Perry at?”
A lady who clearly was not on her first cocktail inquired, “So is this like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’?”
Patrons outside Galatoire’s restaurant applauded.
The producers ordered a halt.
‘An absolute privilege’
The dancing devil, now stripped down to a skimpy pair of leather bikini briefs, bondage straps and the Jesus cape, caught up. His boom box blasted Beyonce’s “Formation.” Hoping to be noticed, he stopped to put on his own show but was mostly ignored.
The cross passed the Hustler Hollywood store, source of “leather, lingerie, love toys,” plus Rick’s Cabaret, Stilettos, Temptations and other strip clubs. Up ahead, the band at the Huge Ass Beers bar hadn’t gotten the memo to turn down the music for the procession. The marchers sang “Amazing Grace.”
After Bourbon Street, Conti Street seemed eerily quiet. With cars parked along the right-hand curb, it was a tight squeeze. “To the left!” shouted a lead cross-bearer.
Turning onto Royal Street, he warned, “Big pothole to the right!” Toward the back of the procession, a call-and-response consisting of a single word — “Jesus” — took hold.
Producers stopped the march at Jackson Square near the Presbytere for 20 minutes; it was way ahead of schedule. Surveying her cross-bearers, Hope-Brokopp selected Chris Barr and his 17-year-old son, Noah, to be at the head of the cross when it entered Woldenberg Park.
The senior Barr was overwhelmed. “Crying is OK, right?” he asked, only half-joking. “It will be an outpouring. It’s an absolute privilege.”
The dancing devil had apparently lost interest and was nowhere to be found. Instead, someone costumed as the Easter Bunny watched silently as the marchers sang their hymns.
Nischelle Turner grooved along with them. Interviewing a young man near St. Louis Cathedral, she was visibly moved by his testimonial. As soon as she was off-air, she wiped away tears.
On Decatur Street, the unofficial participants were weeded out of the procession before it arrived at Woldenberg Park.
A group of credentialed marchers turned prematurely. “Someone took them down the wrong street,” a producer sighed.
At a gap in the riverfront floodwall at Bienville Street, security guards checked for the required white wristbands. From across a parking lot came the lost sheep who had taken the wrong turn, urged on by a producer: “Let’s go, let’s go!”
Turner broadcast a quick update: “This has been a real journey for us tonight.”
The cross and its entourage were directed into a barricaded chute. Up ahead, the towering main stage, with its lights and video screens, was visible. Seal, as Pontius Pilate, was busy condemning Jesus.
The marchers surged forward, earning a reprimand: “Do not start moving! It has to be cued!”
‘Back away from the cross’
Finally, it was time. Led by Chris and Noah Barr, the cross approached the brightly lit stage as Yearwood, Seal and millions of TV viewers looked on. It was set on a stand, reclined at an angle.
“When we return,” Tyler Perry intoned, “a mother’s emotional farewell to her son.”
The muddy grounds smelled faintly like a barnyard. The cross was ready for its close-up.
But first, a voice boomed over the loudspeakers: “We need to clear around the cross. Please back away from the cross.”
And then, a different, more insistent, voice: “Can you PLEASE move away from the cross. Please move away.”
Yearwood needed room to stand by it; a cameraman needed room to maneuver around her. Space was made. As the show went live again, Yearwood rested a hand on the cross and eased into “Broken,” a song originally released by the band Lifehouse in 2007. She sang, “In the pain there is healing,” teetering on the brink of tears.
On two exposed, elevated platforms, members of “The Passion” choir — many of them recruited from Loyola University — shivered. During commercials, they huddled for warmth as wind whipped their lightweight white jackets and skirts.
Perry improvised while reading the script from a Teleprompter. Describing the massive rock placed in front of Jesus’ tomb, he ad-libbed, “They didn’t want him to get out, y’all!”
At 8:53 p.m., Jencarlos Canela, in all white, sang his finale high above the riverfront on the roof of the Westin Hotel.
The show concluded with Yolanda Adams, the cast and seven members of Preservation Hall’s brass band joining forces for “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
It was finished. As the crowd dispersed, the marchers mingled around the cross and took pictures. “It was awesome, and more,” said Leaphart, the breast cancer survivor.
The six members of the Barr clan posed with Hope-Brokopp, the producer who gave them their 15 minutes of fame. “You’re family now,” Chris Barr said.
The stars of “The Passion” boarded the riverboat Natchez, docked nearby, for an after-party. Workers hustled to dismantle the stage; power drills, hammers and forklifts took over.
As the wind blew colder, the big cross was left alone, resting serenely, still aglow. It would be placed in storage, in the hope that enough people watched “The Passion” to justify a sequel.
If the Lord, and the ratings, are willing, it will be resurrected next year, in another city, for another march.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.