NEW YORK — Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, creators of "A.D. The Bible Continues," have not shied away from pointing out that their new series includes an "accomplished cast hailing from more than 10 different nations." But that is because the couple has also acknowledged that they "could have done a better job in hiring a diverse cast" for their 2013 ratings blockbuster, "The Bible."
Although "The Bible" series "made strides ... we needed to see more of the diversity of the church," Barbara Williams-Skinner said during a diversity chat on Twitter last week. "For too long religious programming has neither reflected the look of biblical times (nor) the diversity of the church today."
"We made this point to Mark and Roma after ("The Bible"), and quite frankly they listened. I'm glad for that," she added.
Williams-Skinner, a leader of the National African American Clergy Network, was joined in the online discussion last week by Burnett and Downey and Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination's first female bishop. The Twitter chat was hosted by Joshua Dubois, former head of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships.
In the chat, Downey agreed that she and her husband had taken an "important step" and that she was "excited that #ADTheSeries reflects the beautiful tapestry that is the church."
"We serve a God who loves all people equally. But casting for religious programming has not been as equality-focused," her husband added. "So the cast on #ADTheSeries is very diverse — but here's the thing — they're also the best possible actors for the role."
Downy agreed: "The actors playing James, John, Mary Magdalene and more are simply amazing. This isn't token diversity. They're just GOOD."
The "accomplished cast" headlined by Argentinian "Jesus" Juan Pablo Di Pace includes, according to a press release: John - Babou Ceesay (Gambia); Mary Magdalene - Chipo Chung (Zimbabwe); James - Denver Isaac (Zimbabwe); Arik - Nicholas Pinnock (Jamaica); Simon the Zealot - Fraser Ayers (Scotland/Black); Ananias - Peter De Jersey (Britain); Mother Mary - Greta Scacchi (Italy); Thomas - Johannes Johannesson (Iceland); Judas - Cesare Taurasi (Italy); and Boaz - George Georgiou (Greece).
"A.D. The Bible Series" had its premiere reception on March 31, at The Highline Hotel in New York City. The Christian Post asked a few of its star cast for their thoughts on the diversity of new series.
Ceesay ("'71" and "Shirley") may or may not be the first black actor to play John in a major television production. John the apostle, who along with his brother, James, Jesus dubs the "sons of Thunder," is credited with writing one of the four Gospel accounts about Christ. In some respects, the British actor considers the fact that he has brown skin to be incidental to the role he plays.
"I guess what it says in the end is that it's not so much about where the man is from, it's more about what he represents and what his soul is about," Ceesay said of his character. "The actions that John takes, the things that earn him the title 'the beloved' and that made him such an influential figure in the church was that he made choices. And those choices put him in harm's way for other people. Those choices helped to change the status quo of that time. Those choices led to what we have as a world now. At the time he wasn't aware of that, but he did that. That's the man. What he looked like is irrelevant.
"Nowadays everything is linked to what you look like, you know there's celebrity and all this nonsense. But in reality, if you're able to look past the person in terms of the surface and look at their actions, then that defines them. I've had the opportunity to try and bring some of what I found in my research of the man, John, to life. The fact that I'm brown is by-the-by."
But the married father and former accountant is not totally willing to dismiss his groundbreaking role as "no big deal."
"On some level I think it's no big deal, I have to. And I would implore anyone who is in any predicament, whether you think it's because of your sex in terms of whether you're a man or a woman, your sexuality, whatever your choices are, the color of your skin, that on some level you have to be gung-ho, 'I don't care. I don't notice what the world is telling me is right or wrong. I'm just going to do what I need to do and see what comes of it,'" Ceesay said.
"On another level, you can't ignore the fact that there are some disparities, there (is) some unfairness, there is that, you know, 'because you're black these are the roles that you're good for.' I think the combination of me not caring that I'm black and approaching it with belief ...," he said before trailing off.
"When I got sent the part of John I never thought, 'Oh, John is black.' I just thought, 'What an interesting role, I'm going to go audition for it.' I genuinely thought that," Ceesay told CP. "On the other hand though, Mark and Roma Downey, out in the middle of Malibu, decided, 'We'd like to make this a diverse cast.' They made that decision and that decision is part of the reason I'm here today. That combination."
Chipo Chung, who called "A.D. The Bible Continues" "fun," "edgy" and "gritty," plays the part of Mary Magdalene, the first of Jesus' friends and followers to see him resurrected from the dead.
What does she think of the diversity of her castmates, who represent countries from nearly every continent?
"I think that's what Jerusalem was like at that time. There were traders coming in from Libya, from Ethiopia, from Egypt going on to Syria and Persia and Greece, so it was a real mix up," Chung told CP.
"We've been filming in Morocco and the Berber people have been all about supporting artists, and I look quite similar to them. And many of them were historically Jewish, they were a nomadic Jewish tribe," she added. "That feels really authentic, they feel really authentic. And I think the church today is so diverse. The church in China is growing, let alone Africa. It's beautiful to do a classical tale that's authentic to that time but is also true to the church today."
Vincent Regan, the Irish Wales-born actor who takes on the role of Roman governor Pontius Pilate in "A.D.," said he found the diverse ethnic backgrounds of the cast "wonderful."
"I mean, the Christian faith is a global faith. And every time you do a show about Greeks, Jews, Romans usually it's the same faces (mine usually)," Regan told CP. "I just think it works so well to have a diverse ethnicity in the show, you know. Because the qualities that someone like Babou and Chipo bring to their roles is extraordinary and really moving."
Regan added, "It's a beautiful show. I'm really proud of it, actually."
THE NEXT FRONTIER: A BLACK JESUS?
The question has been asked for centuries: what did Jesus look like?
There is conjecture that John, the author of the book of Revelation (and not necessarily the beloved apostle), describes Jesus as literally having hair "like wool" and feet resembling "polished bronze," which some assert, would mean Jesus looked like a black man. Others argue, however, that John's description is all metaphor, and not a picture of Christ's actual features.
In popular western art and movies, Jesus is presented with long hair and fair skin, resembling a European man. A recent exception was "Killing Jesus," the National Geographic Channel adaptation of Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's book of the same name. In that television project, Haaz Sleiman, a Lebanese actor, portrays the Middle Eastern Messiah, also with long hair.
Burnett, who surprised some viewers of "The Bible" with his choice of Nigerian-Brit Nonso Anozie to play a dreadlocked Samson, has suggested that he may be considering an exception as well.
"We realized that we could have made 'The Bible' better in terms of diversity, but we are getting the chance to do it again," Burnett acknowledged in February to a group of African-American clergy at an "A.D." screening in Washington, D.C. The event was hosted by Dubois, the author and former White House staffer who also organized the Twitter chat on diversity.
"In the Bible there are always second chances. 'A.D.' was our second chance and we manage to make this very Afrocentric in major characters," Burnett told the pastors and church leaders, according to The Washington Post.
In their promotion of the new "A.D." series, Burnett and Downey have placed "a special emphasis on the Latin American community and the black community," according to Patheos film columnist Peter T. Chattaway.
As Chattaway notes, the group of African-American pastors and church leaders with whom Burnett met were not very impressed with the "Survivor"creator's choice of Argentinian actor Juan Pablo di Pace to play the Son of God.
"This would have been great for us in 1980, but in 2015, we need to consider for accuracy sake Jesus having another type skin color," the Rev. Darrel Watson, dean of the Seminary Division of the Maple Springs Baptist Bible College, told Burnett at the gathering. Watson referenced Revelation 1:14, the part of the Bible that describes Jesus' "head and his hair (being) white like wool, as white as snow," and his eyes being "like flames of fire," his feet "like polished bronze refined in a furnace," and his voice thundering "like mighty ocean waves."
"Given latest scholarship, Jesus is more to be seen as black than anything else," Watson argued.
Burnett told Patheos in an interview published nearly two months after the Washington gathering that he was possibly considering that aspect for future Bible projects:
"We're involved with the African-American churches in a huge way, and we understand we didn't quite do a good enough job on that, but I think we've done a really good job of showing the diversity of the region," he says. "It was the center place of trade from the east, from Persia and beyond, and Africa clearly, as we see from the Ethiopian eunuch coming through, and then with the lighter-skinned Europeans from Rome.
"So certainly people wouldn't have been white, in that sense of the word, and we've tried the best we could, and I think your question leads to why didn't we have a darker-skinned Jesus. We have a Hispanic Jesus, and I think we're looking at that for the future."
How far into the future, and for what project? The Christian Post did not follow up with Burnett before publication to find out.
As of now, some Christians are pleased just to hear that a wide swathe of actors have been cast for "A.D."
That includes pastors Creflo and Taffi Dollar, who stopped by the NYC premiere reception for "A.D. The Bible" continues. When CP told Mrs. Dollar about the ethnic mix of the cast she seemed surprised.
"I think that's wonderful," she said, later adding that she thinks the series will be "another attention-getter."
Dollar said he thought the diversity of the "A.D." actors was "great."
"It's going to make people feel included, make them feel a part of it. It's going to represent the rainbow that the church should represent anyway," he added. The megachurch pastor, with congregations in Georgia, New York and overseas, said he played an "A.D." promo for his church and encouraged everyone to watch the series.
"A.D. The Bible Continues" picks up where 2013's "The Bible" left off. The new series portrays the challenges Jesus' disciples faced with political and religious leaders in spreading his teachings throughout the Roman Empire and founding the Christian Church, which today claims more than 2 billion people worldwide.
"A.D. The Bible Continues" premieres at 9 p.m. ET on Easter Sunday, April 5 on NBC.