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Civil rights-era Gospel still inspires actors and audiences

Hepburn, Sask.
Susan Schmidt Goerz, director

Through The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John (published 1968–1973), Clarence Jordan gave Americans a vivid, contemporary take on the gospel story by framing Jesus and the disciples in the vernacular of rural Georgia with all its poverty and human rights struggles. This “contemporary portrait” continues to inspire audiences through presentations of the hit Broadway musical Cotton Patch Gospel (adapted for the stage by Tom Key, Russell Treyz, and Harry Chapin), such as the one performed at Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask., Nov. 4–5.

“I look for a play that is going to move me and very definitely has a spiritual bent not in contradiction with the gospel,” says director Susan Schmidt Goerz, regarding the Bible college’s annual fall theatre production. Captivated not only by the fresh presentation of the story, but also the dedicated scholarship and profound practical impact of translator Jordan (founder of Koinonia Farm), Goerz is directing the Cotton Patch Gospel at Bethany for the second time in 15 years.

Goerz’s prayer – and she literally has a team praying for the production and the actor playing the role of Jesus – is that the audience would be moved and welcomed. “When the storyteller is clear about the story they want to tell, the audience picks upon that, picks up on what the actor is thinking behind the words.”

That’s why Goerz spends so much time with the actors behind the scenes, “staring at every word.” The 21 actors and crew members dedicate some five hours a week for seven weeks to not only rehearsing lines and learning stage presence, but discussing the setting, character motivations, and imagery, and sharing stories from their own lives as they become a team. Through working with Jordan’s text, “students are forced to acknowledge God in a new way, read Scripture in a new way.”

“It’s more real, more fresh,” says Steven Schmidt, cast in the role of Matthew, the narrator. “We’ve heard them [the words of the Gospels] so many times in our lives, we just read them,” he says, but working with the 1960s language and context of Cotton Patch Gospel, “gives a different picture of the life of Jesus.”

“We do this play with the Lord; he brings understanding to the audience,” says Goerz. “An event that brings people together to share a story is profound.”

Previous years’ audiences consist of alumni and parents from as far and wide as Manitoba and B.C., but many local churchgoers take the opportunity to bring non-Christian friends to “use the play as a jumping-off point to talk about God and faith.”

—Karla Braun

Photo credit: Cora Lynn Carey

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