Willa Saunders Jones Papers

Dates: 1930-1984
Size: 4 linear feet
Repository: Chicago Public Library, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research collection of Afro-American History and Literature, 9525 S. Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60628
Collection Number: 1982/01
Provenance: Gift of Rogers Jones, 1982
Access: No restrictions
Citation: When quoting material from this collection the preferred citation is: Willa Saunders Jones Papers [Box #, Folder #], Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library.
Processed by: Angela Bacon, Mapping the Stacks, University of Chicago
Supervised by: Michael Flug, Senior Archivist, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library

Biographical Note

Willa Saunders Jones was born a twin on Feb. 22, 1901, to Ada Pulliam and George Washington Saunders, in Little Rock, Ark. Soon after Willa’s birth, and the death of her twin, Jimmy, Ada Pulliam married Smith McBerry and worked as a domestic. Later, Ada married William Anderson. Willa (called Willie as a child) spent her childhood with her mother, stepfather, and half-brother, as well as her grandmother and great-grandmother, both former slaves. The working conditions of African American laborers she witnessed as a child propelled Jones to move to the urban Midwest and had a great impact on her work as a playwright.

Willa’s father, George Saunders, was the pastor of Mt. Tabor Baptist Church in Little Rock until his death in 1924. Willa attended both her father’s church and Mt. Olive Baptist as a child. Willa graduated from Arkansas Baptist College, a denominational high school, around 1920. Upon graduating, she married George Washington Jones, a graduate of Philander Smith Methodist College.

In 1921, shortly before their move to Chicago, Willa and George had their first child, George Jr. Intending to remain in Little Rock, and in the process of purchasing their first home, the couple was forced to leave Arkansas for Chicago after George Sr. (along with another man, Emanuel West) was accused of raping a white woman. Willa and George narrowly escaped unharmed by the vigilante mob.

In 1922, shortly after moving to Chicago, Willa had her second child, Charles, and a third, a girl named Betty Jane, who died soon after birth. While George attended Moody Bible Institute, Willa became severely ill. It was during her recovery that she began work on The Passion Play . As a young woman, Jones was recognized as a talented vocalist and acclaimed as a choral director. Jones was also known as a keyboardist, powerful speaker, and spiritual leader. These talents would serve her well as director and producer of the play.

The Play

The Chicago Passion Play ran for 55 years, between 1926 and 1981—two years after Jones’ death in 1979. It was first staged Easter Sunday 1926 at St. John Church. Originally titled The Resurrection, the original production did not include Christ as a character, nor did it depict the crucifixion. The audience consisted of fewer than 25 viewers and a small cast. By 1930, the production was being staged at various churches around the city. However, The Passion Play remained a small-scale production until its later performances, which were staged in large auditoriums and venues such as the Civic Opera House.

Being in Chicago increased the play’s opportunities for exposure through close-knit local churches and community organizations. Its major form of publicity came from word-of-mouth advertising in African American communities. Jones’ audiences grew when performances began to include singers like Mahalia Jackson, a close friend of Jones, Dinah Washington, Reverend Clay Evans, and the Barrett Sisters, along with popular Chicago dance troupes. The play also presented the opportunity for Chicago’s south and west side residents to participate in theatrical productions.

After Jones’ death in 1979, the play’s production and direction were taken over by her grandson, Rogers Jones, and continued until 1986, when a lack of funding stopped production.

The papers in this collection, though small, include a series of programs and playbills (the first dating back to 1930), an organizational summary from the Willa Saunders Jones Corp., 1984, an original copy of the script (likely from later productions), and a large collection of memorabilia—plaques, awards, and proclamations from the City of Chicago.

In addition to the information contained in these papers, researchers can find a detailed biography of Willa Saunders Jones and an analysis of the Passion Play , written by Brian James Hallstoos of University of Iowa in the Journal of American Drama and Theatre , Spring 2007. His full dissertation on the Passion Play is available in PDF form at .

Scope and Content

The Willa Saunders Jones Collection consists chiefly of programs, news clippings, and numerous photographs from the production of the Chicago Passion Play . Also, there is a large amount of memorabilia—plaques, trophies, and proclamations from City of Chicago—included in the collection. Of note is a copy of the play (date unknown) containing marginalia.

The collection is made up of six series: Biography, Manuscripts, Programs, Clippings, Photographs, and Memorabilia.

Series 1: Biography contains two documents: a brief, undated, biographical sketch of Jones and a summary of the Willa Saunders Jones Corp., printed in 1984.

Series 2: Manuscripts contains a single document: a copy of the Passion Play script, date unknown.

Series 3: Programs consists of seven programs from various productions of the Passion Play from 1930 to the mid-1970s.

Series 4: Clippings is comprised of Chicago press notices, written between the 1950s and 1983, covering various aspects of the play’s production and Jones’ development as the writer/director.

Series 5: Photographs is composed of photographs documenting the production and performance of the Chicago Passion Play.

Series 6: Memorabilia contains various awards—proclamations from the Mayor of Chicago, trophies, and plaques—spanning Jones’ career as writer and director of the Passion Play.

Container List

Series 1: Biography
Box 1 Folder 1: Willa Saunders Jones Corp., 1984
Box 1 Folder 2: “Willa Saunders Jones,” biographical sketch, [N.D.]
Series 2: Manuscripts
Box 1 Folder 3: “The Passion Play,” Script, [N.D.]
Series 3: Programs
Box 1 Folder 4: “The Resurrection: An Easter Pageant,” Saint Luke Baptist Church, Chicago, IL, 4/20/1930
Box 1 Folder 5: “Passion Play,” DuSable High School, Chicago, IL, 4/1/1956
Box 1 Folder 6: “Passion Play,” Auditorium Theatre, 4/4-4/6 1969
Box 1 Folder 7: “Passion Play,” Auditorium Theatre, 3/27-3/29 1970
Box 1 Folder 8: “Chicago’s Passion Play Sponsored by the Church Federation of Greater Chicago,” Auditorium Theatre, 4/11/1971
Box 1 Folder 9: “Willa Saunders Jones’ Passion Play; 25th Annual Presentation,” Civic Opera House, 4/15/1976
Box 1 Folder 10: “The Chicago Passion Play,” McCormick Place-On-The-Lake, [N.D.]
Series 4: Clippings
Box 1 Folder 11: “Giant Musical Program to Honor Willa S. Jones,” Chicago Defender, 2/18/1950
Box 1 Folder 12: “How It Started: Mrs. Jones Passion Play in 41st Year,” Chicago Sun-Times, 3/21/1970
Box 1 Folder 13: “Roses for the Producer,” [Stand-alone photo], The Post-Tribune, 1970s(?)
Box 1 Folder 14 “Passion Play,” [Stand-alone photo], The Post-Tribune, 4/5/1971
Box 1 Folder 15: “‘Passion Play’ Cast Honors Founder,” Chicago Defender, 3/1/1979
Box 1 Folder 16: “Mayor Bilandic Proclaims Passion Play Day,” 4/10/1979, [N.P.]
Box 1 Folder 17 “The Chicago Passion Play- A Tradition of Excellence,” The Chicago Metro News, 4/12/1980
Box 1 Folder 18: “Passion Play Set for Opera House,” Chicago Defender, 4/26/1980
Box 1 Folder 19: “Passion Play: Vow Becomes a City Legacy,” Chicago Sun-Times, 4/28/1980
Box 1 Folder 20: “Passion Play- A Resurrected Joy,” The Observer, 3/28/1981
Box 1 Folder 21: “Chicago Passion Play,” Citizen Newspapers, 3/10/1983
Box 1 Folder 22: “Chicago Passion Play Returns to DuSable,” Chicago Defender, 3/5/1983.
Box 1 Folder 23: “The Chicago Passion Play- A Tradition of Excellence,” [Collage of Various Articles Relating to Play and Willa S. Jones], [N.D.]
Box 1 Folder 24: “Chicago Passion Play to Unfold in Splendor,” Chicago Defender, [N.D.]
Box 1 Folder 25: “Enacts Christus,” [Stand-alone photo], [N.P.], [N.D.]
Box 1 Folder 26: “Open Passion Play Academy,” [N.P.], [N.D.]
Box 1 Folder 27: “Operation Breadbasket Plans 40th Production of Passion Play,” [N.P.], [N.D.]
Box 1 Folder 28: “Passion Play is Tradition,” [N.P.], [N.D.]
Series 5: Photographs
Box 2 001 Manger Gilbert Welcomes “Passion Play,” back to Civic Opera House after McCormick Place Fire,1967
Box 2 002 Passion Play, Civic Opera House, Holy Women and Angels, 1978
Box 2 003 Angels and Holy Women Wonder Who Will Roll the Stone Away, Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 004 “Passion Play,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 005 “Passion Play,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 006 The Last Supper, “Passion Play,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 007 “Passion Play,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 008 “Dancers in Herod’s Court,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 009 “Dancers in Herod’s Court,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 010 “Dancers in Herod’s Court,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 011 “Dancers in Herod’s Court,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 012 “Dancers in Herod’s Court,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 013 “Passion Play,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 014 Cast Sings: “He’s Brought Joy to my Soul,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 015 “Passion Play,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 016 Salome Dances for King Herod, “Passion Play,” Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 017 “He was my friend! Cries the disciple,” Passion Play, Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 018 “Jesus cries, ‘It is finished’ at the crucifixion,” Passion Play, Civic Opera House, 1978
Box 2 019 Passion Play, Lawndale, 1984
Box 2 020 Passion Play, Lawndale, 1984
Box 2 021 Passion Play, Lawndale, 1984
Box 2 022 Passion Play, Lawndale, 1984
Box 2 023 Passion Play Rehearsals, [N.D.]
Box 2 024 Passion Play Rehearsals, [N.D.]
Box 2 025 “Take these forms to the secretary,” Director Rogers E. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 026 Director Jones Making Notations, [N.D.]
Box 2 027 “I think I can,” Mr. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 028 Rogers E. Jones demonstrates acting techniques, [N.D.]
Box 2 029 Rogers E. Jones demonstrates acting techniques, [N.D.]
Box 2 030 Rogers E. Jones demonstrates acting techniques, [N.D.]
Box 2 031 Rogers E. Jones demonstrates acting techniques, [N.D.]
Box 2 032 Dramatic Acting classes w/ Rogers E. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 033 Dramatic Acting classes w/ Rogers E. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 034 “Voices of Fountain of Life,” w/ Director Rogers E. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 035 “Passion Play” rehearsals at 2831 S. Michigan Ave., [N.D.]
Box 2 036 “Voices of Fountain of Life,” w/ Director Rogers E. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 037 “Passion Play" rehearsals at 2831 S. Michigan Ave., [N.D.]
Box 2 038 “All children deserve a chance,” director Rogers E. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 039 “All children deserve a chance,” director Rogers E. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 040 Willa Saunders Jones, Writer and Producer of the “Passion Play,” [N.D.]
Box 2 041 “Willa Jones (Mama Willa) giving instructions before Passion Play rehearsal,” [N.D.]
Box 2 042 “Crucify him, away with him, cries the mob to Pilate,” [N.D.]
Box 2 043 My Father, “If it be possible let this cup pass,” cries Jesus, [N.D.]
Box 2 044 “Rest son, ‘tis over”- ‘tis finished. [N.D.]
Box 2 045 Willa Saunders Jones Receives Congrats after successful “Passion Play” performance, [N.D.]
Box 2 046 “Congrats! You have just won tickets to Chicago’s Passion Play, [N.D.]
Box 2 047 Rogers E. Jones Directs “Voices of Fountain of Life,” During Musical Services, [N.D.]
Box 2 048 “Voices of Fountain of Life,” 4363 S. Princeton, trained by Rogers E. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 049 “Voices of Fountain of Life,” w/ Director Rogers E. Jones, [N.D.]
Box 2 050 Salome dances for the Head of John the Baptist, [N.D.]
Box 2 051 Willa Saunders Jones at Early “Passion Play” Performances, [N.D.]
Box 2 052 “Passion Play, She was caught in the act of adultery!” [N.D.]
Box 2 053 “Make garment longer,” Mama Willa tells seamstress, [N.D.]
Box 2 054 Passion Play, “The Last Supper,” [N.D.]
Box 2 055 Passion Play, “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted,” [N.D.]
Series 6: Memorabilia
Box 3 Plaque for Passion Play, Biennial Council of Peoples Church of Christ and Community Centers of the United States and Elsewhere, 3/6/1949
Box 3 Proclamation: Willa Saunders Jones Passion Play Day, Mayor Richard J. Daley, Chicago, IL, 2/8/1967
Box 3 Proclamation: Willa Saunders Jones as Writer, Producer, and Director of The Passion Play, Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher, Gary, IN, 4/2/1971
Box 3 Proclamation: Passion Play Day in Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley, 3/30/1975
Box 3 Certificate of Appreciation, Monumental Baptist Church, 6/22/1975
Box 4 Second Annual Christian Hall of Fame Award, St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church, 10/12/1975
Box 4 Tickets, Passion Play Civic Opera House, Chicago, IL 4/18/1976
Box 4 In Appreciation of 51 Years of Personal Service as Writer, Producer, and Director of the Chicago Passion Play, The Chicago Passion Play Guild, 1977(?)
Box 4 Proclamation: Chicago’s Passion Play Day, Mayor Michael A. Bilandic, 4/10/1979
Box 4 Proclamation: Chicago Passion Play Days, Mayor Jane M. Byrne, Chicago, IL, 3/31/1981
Box 4 Proclamation: Chicago Passion Play Days, Mayor Jane M. Byrne, Chicago, IL, 3/2/1983
Box 4 Proclamation: Passion Play Days in Chicago, Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago, IL, 2/17/1984
Box 4 Willa Saunders Jones, Corp. 1984-85 Performing Arts Workshops Poster, 11/29/1984
Box 4 Good American Award, The Chicago Committee of One Hundred, [N.D.]
Box 4 Recognition Award, WMPP Dramatic Producer’s Award of the Year, [N.D.]
Box 5 Trophy, Willa Saunders Jones; Writer, Director, Producer Passion Play, Model Cities, Gary, IN, 4/4/1971
Box 5 To Mama Willa With Love, Jimmy Payne Dancers, Passion Play, 1971
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