MESA, Ariz. — During the Easter season, on a five-story stage graced with magnificent pageantry, dance and music, the Mesa Arizona Easter Pageant shares the message of Easter, portraying the life and mission of the Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection.
The forerunner to the pageant was a sunrise service atop a cotton trailer in Tempe. In 1938, the service was moved to Mesa, where it was performed on the steps of the Mesa Arizona Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Today, the 75-year tradition continues, and the Mesa Arizona Easter Pageant attracts tens of thousands of people each year. The 65-minute presentation features live animals, authentic-looking costumes and magnificent staging, lighting and sound.
Still, much of the richness of the pageant and what draws thousands to attend each year is in the “rest of the story,” or what goes on behind the scenes of the spectacular production. This year, the pageant features the largest cast ever — with a total of 475 cast members and 400 additional volunteers who will work behind the scenes. It represents a mammoth effort of hundreds of thousands of hours from participants and volunteer staff — everyone from costumers and animal handlers, to people who manage the props, to those who set up the sea of chairs on the grass in front to the temple Visitors Center.
“It’s a big production and nothing works without every piece — everyone’s involvement is just as important as anyone else’s to make this the wonderful community Easter tradition it has become,” said Jenee Wright Prince, the pageant director.
“We are there to present the story of the Savior, of the only perfect man," she added, "Even though we are imperfect and often fall short, the Lord always fills in the gap, always makes up the difference.”
Even as they work to bring the story of the Savior to life on the stage, cast and crew say they feel Christ’s love and their testimonies are strengthened.
“So many little miracles happen every year. It’s always amazing to see it come together,” Prince said.
Cristy Rosas and her daughter, Diana, 6, are part of the cast for the performances that will be presented in Spanish.
“We wanted to participate at first because we wanted to have a spiritual experience as a family,” Cristy Rosas said. “It was such a great experience that first year that we wanted to continue to feel that every year.”
“Life is different while we are in the pageant. Everything is perfect, happier,” she said. “We have answers to our prayers and we see miracles every day. It’s neat to feel that for one month each year.”
Diana, who is in first grade, said she loved “dancing with Jesus” in the scene with Jesus and the children last year.
Twins Hayden and Harrison Jones, 18, are participating in the pageant for the third time. They have been cast as angels for the second time.
“It’s so worth it,” Hayden Jones said.
He said he has learned “it doesn’t matter what situation the Savior was in, he had a great willingness to serve. It has made me think about how I could be more like that.”
Practicing and performing in the pageant is “an uplifting experience,” Harrison Jones said, and added, “especially right now,” referring to the fact that he and his brother Hayden have recently received their calls to serve Mormons missions and will be leaving shortly after the pageant is over. Both have been called to serve in Argentina: Harrison in the Buenos Aires North mission and Hayden in the Resistencia mission.
“The pageant is great mental and spiritual preparation for our missions,” Harrison said.
Another returning cast member is Mark Bayless, of the North Scottsdale Arizona Stake, who is playing the role of a Sadducee for the fourth year. “The experience has far outweighed any expectations I had,” Bayless said.
He admitted that to play one of those who mock the Savior and turn their back on him is difficult. “I remember the first time I had to spit on the (person playing the) Savior. An overwhelming feeling of sadness came over me. I left heavy hearted and wondered, ‘How can I do that night after night to the Savior that I love?’”
He said what has gotten him through is that “I know, at the end, I get to stand and sing, ‘I Know He Lives,’ and express testimony of the Savior. It counterbalances everything.”
Joe Tenney, a member of the Gilbert Higley Arizona Stake, is a 15-year veteran as a pageant participant, appearing as the narrator for 13 years and, for the last two, serving as assistant director.
Tenney’s wife, Debbie, their three daughters and two sons have also participated in the pageant during the years. “It has definitely worked its way into the fabric of the lives of our family,” he said. “It’s a wonderful privilege to be a part of it.”
Members of the Queen Creek Arizona Stake, Robert Allen and his wife, Norine, agree.
Allen, who played the role of Jesus Christ for six years, took two years off and has returned to play Peter this year.
Allen said while it requires time and effort, “We have always found what you get back is every bit as much — and usually double — any sacrifice you put forth.”
Allen, who runs a junk disposal company called The Garbage Guy, added that the pageant gives them a chance to “sort of declutter your life for awhile. Your mind, body and everything seems more peaceful.”
His wife and children feel the same.
“People have asked why we do this. It’s because of the joy we feel in testifying," Norine Allen said. "Other opportunities you have — things you do like sports or hobbies — don’t always allow for the chance to testify like the pageant does.”
Prince, the pageant director, added that it humbling to participate.
“It is a tremendous and humbling honor for all of us who participate in the pageant, in even the smallest way, to present a portion of the life and mission of the Savior. The power of his life and the beauty of his teachings uplift and edify everyone — staff, cast, and audience,” Prince said.
The pageant is free of charge and is peformed on the north lawn of the Mesa Temple Visitors’ Center, 525 E. Main in Mesa. The 2013 performances begin at 8 p.m. each night and will be presented in English on March 20-21 and March 26-30, andin Spanish on March 22 and 23. The pageant will be presented in ASL on March 20-23.
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Metal chairs are available, strictly on a first-come, first-served basis, and attendees may bring blankets or chairs to sit on around the perimeter. Free parking is available on adjacent streets, with handicap parking and tour bus parking in the lot east of the visitors’ center.
For additional information, visit www.easterpageant.org or call 480-964-7164.
Cecily Markland is a freelance writer, book editor, publicist and author of "Hope: One Mile Ahead" and the children’s book "If I Made a Bug." She owns Inglestone Publishing and produces cecilymarkland.com, a calendar of LDS events in Arizona.