Play tries to bring redemption to the urban underside

  • May 31, 2010
A scene from The Ultimate Sacrifice, a Gospel musical opening at the Panasonic Theatre June 25.TORONTO - As an actor, Michelle Lopez is accustomed to a theatre ensemble circling to practise lines, but before joining the cast of The Ultimate Sacrifice she’d never encountered an entire theatre group gathering for a lively half-hour prayer before and after rehearsals.

Those sessions are just one reason Lopez calls her role in the Gospel musical a blessing.

“For everybody involved it’s a blessing, because we’re doing a play that’s God’s play. No apologies,” says supporting actress Lopez, 31, a parishioner of St. Andrew’s in Toronto.

For her, The Ultimate Sacrifice is an ultimate blessing. Lopez joins a cast of 25 actors — including some who are in fact ex-gang members — a professional Gospel music ensemble of singers, actors and urban dancers who hope to captivate a younger audience with their break-dancing skills.

The story line for The Ultimate Sacrifice revolves around Xavier, an ex-gang member released from prison who returns to his troubled  inner-city neighbourhood and tries to bring dramatic change with the guidance of a pastor. The production draws from stories in the Gospel to deliver Christ’s message in a modern context.

Working with Christian writer and director Cheryl Nembhard has been a refreshing experience, Lopez says. Besides leading them in prayer she also brings a lifetime of experience with the issues they address in the performance.

“Working with such a faithful group is inspiring, and the fact she is a nurturing, caring, empathetic coach and director is helpful, especially with my role,” Lopez says.

Lopez plays Maria, a prostitute who comes from an emotionally and sexually abusive background — a role she never expected when first auditioning.

“It was advertised as a Christian play, so this was a little bit of a surprise,” Lopez said with a laugh. But really, it only makes sense, she adds, because of the hard-hitting realities of street life portrayed in the play — gangs, prostitution, drug addicts, alcoholics. Lead character Xavier attempts to lead them all to redemption.

As part of that redemption, Lopez gets to display some of her Catholicity by singing a few lines of “Ave Maria.”

In talking with a priest about her role, Lopez was directed to read God in the Alley: Being and Seeing Jesus in a Broken World,” the memoir of a Toronto pastor who ministered to prostitutes, drug addicts and abuse victims. She had also previously picked up a book that dealt with a prostitute’s inner conflict to better understand her character.

Writer-director Nembhard helps bring realism to all of the actors from her own experiences doing street ministry over a lifetime in Toronto. Nembhard has used her passion for theatre to bring the Gospel to street youth, at-risk youth and even some gang members. Three of her productions, including The Ultimate Sacrifice were performed in past years through Rhema Christian Ministries.

That Mirvish is allowing Nembhard’s team to perform at the Panasonic Theatre is an explosive breakthrough for Gospel theatre, which hasn’t taken root north of the border.

“It’s awesome that we’ve been able to go from the church, literally, to Panasonic. This is a huge step, not just for me but for playwrights of faith everywhere, those who want to proclaim the Good News,” Nembhard said. “It’s never been done and it’s an exciting time.”

Someone unfamiliar with the Gospel may not pick up the parallel with biblical characters such as Lopez’s role and Mary Magdalene, and Xavier with St. Paul. But overall, Nembhard says she hopes they will recognize the core teachings of the Bible.

“I would say it reflects the greatest Gospel story which is the Gospel of Jesus, the fact that like Him, we need to be amongst the people, we need to be able to touch the people, to be pricked by their infirmities and feed the poor, take care of the poor, clothe the naked and in doing so, give honour to Him.

“I really wanted this play to celebrate the unsung heroes who dare to love those that society avoids, which is very much which Christ did and he is ridiculed for that.”

The Ultimate Sacrifice runs June 25-27 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge St. Tickets are $30. A special rate of $25 is available to groups of 10 or more.

For more information about the show, visit or call the box office at (416) 872-1212.

Tickets can also be purchased at Faith Family Bookstore in Scarborough.

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