May 5, 2003

'Cotton Patch Gospel'

___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___DALLAS--As if the gospel weren't scandalous enough, having a teenage girl impregnated by God to bear the Messiah, the Cotton Patch Gospel ups the ante.
___Mary, it seems, is the daughter of a deacon at First Baptist Church of Opp,
TOM KEY (center) stars in the Dallas Theater Center production of "Cotton Patch Gospel" with Adam Justin Dietrich, Liz Mikel, George Merritt, Hayden Oliver, Keron Jackson and Sonny Franks. The musical transplants the Gospel of Matthew from Israel to Georgia. (Linda Blase Photo)
Ala. And Jesus isn't crucified by Pontius Pilate but lynched by the Ku Klux Klan working in concert with Gov. Pilate of Georgia.
___More than 20 years since its off-Broadway premiere, the dramatic uprooting of Matthew's Gospel from Israel to Georgia continues both to shock and amuse audiences.
___The audience at a recent performance of "Cotton Patch Gospel" at Dallas Theater Center gave the seven-member cast a standing ovation. After one memorable scene, a woman shouted out, "Amen!"
___But not all the shouting remains positive. At performances around North America, some theatergoers still walk out in protest of the play's inference of racial equality as a gospel cause.
___"I used to think we've really evolved with race," said co-author Tom Key, who created the musical's main role and currently stars in the Dallas production. "But sadly, that's not the case. Sadly, this story is still essential."
___"Cotton Patch Gospel" is a story Christians like to see in the secular theater but won't let in their churches, explained Key, who was raised at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala.
___"People who profess Christianity will come to the theater to see it but will not bring it into their churches because that endorses a theology," he surmised.
___As evidence, he cites the fact the show continues to be a theatrical hit and has been performed in both professional and amateur theaters across the country and into Canada. But a movie version intended to draw heavy use in churches did not fare nearly so well.
___Nevertheless, Key speaks with passion about the joy he finds in lives changed through the production. Recently, a Jewish friend who played the title role of Matthew in a production of "Cotton Patch Gospel" directed by Key became a believer in Jesus as Messiah in part through the influence of the musical.
___Key said he has collected "many amazing stories" about how those who have seen the show or acted in it have been changed.
___That's part of what keeps the Atlanta-based actor invigorated to reprise the role he not only created but that accounts for about one-fourth of his acting career. The current production at Dallas Theater Center is his 10th production in 20 years, and he stopped counting performances after he surpassed 1,000.
___"Every time I do it, I think, 'This is going to be the last time.' It's like accepting a mini-calling to do each production."
___Despite being spiritually fulfilling, the role carries heavy physical demands. Key plays Matthew the narrator, as well as Jesus, Simon Peter, deacons in the Baptist church, angels, televangelists and dozens of other characters that sometimes interact with each other as he flips personas faster than pancakes on a country stove.
___The show originated as a one-man play, born out of Key's own passion for telling the gospel story in a fresh way. He developed the script after reading Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch" translation of Matthew's Gospel. Jordan was a Georgia Bible scholar and social activist who founded Koinonia Farms, a ministry that in turn played a pivotal role in birthing Habitat for Humanity.
TOM KEY portrays dozens of characters in the musical "Cotton Patch Gospel," which he co-authored. (Linda Blase Photo)
___From the shorter one-man play, "Cotton Patch Gospel" evolved into a full-blown musical with unexpected help from composer Harry Chapin, also known for hit songs such as "Cat's in the Cradle" and "Taxi." Key met Chapin through a friend of Russell Treyz, who became his co-author in expanding the drama. Chapin was enthralled by the project, Key said, and declared, "I was born to write music for this."
___He completed the project in June 1981, one month before he was killed in an automobile accident. Three months later, the musical opened off-Broadway for what proved to be a successful run.
___The show first came to Texas in 1983, when it was staged at Dallas Theater Center. The seven-month run was at the time the longest run for any musical in Dallas history.
___Today, the show still is evolving, Key said. "Over a period of 20 years, you learn things."
___In 1995, for example, he directed a production in Atlanta in which he restored use of the word "nigger" to emphasize the severity of the cultural context.
___One of the main reasons he created the play in the first place, he said, is to remind people that the Christian gospel is scandalous. "We're so familiar with the story we forget the shock value of a girl being impregnated by God."
___Through "Cotton Patch Gospel," Key said, he intended to use the context of the American South to help people understand the scandalous nature of the gospel in a new way.
___So Mary becomes Mary Hagler from Clayton, Ga., and Joseph becomes Joe Davidson. Nazareth becomes Gainsville, Ga.--"a helluva place to be heaven-sent," according to the show's opening number.
___Mary gives birth to Jesus in an abandoned trailer "out back of" the Dixie Delights Motor Lodge as she and Joseph travel to Atlanta for an income-tax audit.
___When Jesus is 12, he stays behind at the Baptist Sunday School Conference in Atlanta to teach the Bible to denominational leaders, worrying his parents who cannot find him in the car.
___John the Baptist baptizes people in the Chattahoochee River. Judas is named Judd. And Jesus' fate is sealed not during Passover but during the annual Believe in the Bible Society Convention in Atlanta.
___The script resounds with familiar Bible quotations spun in a Georgia vernacular as in Jordan's translation. Jesus says, "Come on to me, everybody who's got a belly full of emptiness."
___As in the Gospel of Matthew, the theme of the show is Jesus' appeal to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might and love your neighbor as yourself."
___Although Key appreciates the influence of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," he said he wanted "Cotton Patch Gospel" to go beyond where those shows stopped. Neither addresses the Resurrection in a significant way.
___"I wanted to go all the way with Jesus being both human and divine," he said. "I wanted a Christ who could come back and have a cup of coffee and a piece of pecan pie."
___Surprisingly, the translation into Southern idioms hasn't been lost on audiences beyond the South, Key reported. In fact, he noted, audiences in New York warned him he shouldn't take the musical to the South because "they'd lynch you." Likewise, audiences in Atlanta told him: "You could never do this outside the South. They wouldn't get it."
___Dallas Theatre Center, under the direction of Joel Ferrell, stages the show in a style as informal as an afternoon visit on the wrap-around porch of a rural farmhouse. The six additional cast members provide the musical accompaniment on guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo and vocals while also becoming part of the play.
___The production has been extended through May 25. Performances run Wednesdays through Sundays, with matinees two days each week. Discounts are available for church groups.


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