Saturday, November 7, 2009

Millbrook "Cotton Patch Gospel"

At their new home in the Robinson Springs School, the Millbrook Community Players are presenting "Cotton Patch Gospel" by Clarence Jordan, with music & lyrics by Harry Chapin.

Originally performed by one actor and a musical quartet, this version expands the cast to six actors, accompanied by a piano and four guitars. The Gospels of Matthew and John are turned into a down-home gentle retelling of the Bible re-set in contemporary rural Georgia.

Jordan's purpose was to tell the Bible stories in language that reaches out to ordinary people so they might better connect with its messages than through the standard versions. The expressions of "modern feelings, frustrations, hopes, and assurances" that come from this play have an immediate relevance to us all.

Over its two hour running time, we are shown the life of Jesus through the eyes and mouths of various disciples, primarily Matthew, played by Chris Perry who also directed this venture. In fact, the play is a virtual monologue for Perry; the other actors have few lines, though they do supply much of the singing.

As "Matthew & Co.", Perry both narrates the chronology of Jesus' time on earth and plays numerous persons throughout the narrative: Jesus, Mary, Joseph [Joe here], John the Baptizer, the Good Samaritan, Herod, Pilate, Judas, and many others. It is a tour de force that Perry is well-equipped to handle.

He can be a neutral narrator, a soft-spoken or angry Jesus, concerned parents, stern politicians, an evangelical preacher, and a troubled betrayer with equal ease and conviction. Quite the performance.

The familiar Bible passages are instantly recognizable in Jordan's version, allowing us to nod approvingly of the change in style. Songs often reinforce the messages of the episodes; for example, the admonition to "turn the other cheek" is sung as "Turn It Around"; other numbers like "Jubilation" or "Everybody's Lost Now" establish moods and commentary.

Musical accompaniment was top notch. Unfortunately, the sound system at the theatre made much of the lyrics impossible to hear. A combination of over-amplification of instruments with inadequate microphones for voices rendered so much of it incomprehensible. We got the messages because the Bible stories are so familiar, but could not hear a lot of the words.

"Cotton Patch Gospel" is both an earnest theological presentation and a comfortable entertainment that garners tears and laughter -- and compassion for one another.