A wise man once said that he who fails to remember history is deemed to repeat it…
And that’s the core message in Bluff City Theater’s final play in a 2018 Season dedicated to the theme of Faith. The Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, with music by Harry Chapin, is based on the book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John by Clarence Jordan. A modern-day retelling of the life of Jesus, the story set in rural Georgia portrays the governor of the state as Herod. To understand why Jordan felt he needed to update the gospels it helps to understand a little of his history and struggles.
Born into a prominent family in rural Georgia, Clarence Jordan was troubled by the racial and economic injustice he saw in the South. Determined to improve the lot of the poor sharecroppers who lived around him, he entered university and earned a degree in agriculture. However he became convinced that poverty was as much spiritual as it was economic and went on to earn a doctorate in theology with an emphasis on the Greek new testaments from a Southern Baptist college. While there he met and married his soulmate, Florence. Shortly thereafter, along with another couple, Jordan and Florence purchased a 440-acre parcel in Georgia and created an interracial farming community they named Koinonia (Greek for fellowship or communion). They took as their inspiration, the earliest Christian communities which were founded on equality, respect for nature and common ownership of possessions.
Koinonia originally thrived in peace with their neighbors, but things changed in the mid 60’s when the civil rights activism overtaking the south led to conflicts with those who saw the farm as a threat. This resulted in economic boycotts and repeated violence against Koinonia, including several bombings on the property. When Jordan reached out to the federal government and President Eisenhower for help, they refused to intervene and instead passed it back to the state. The governor of Georgia was a staunch segregationist and ordered the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to investigate Jordan and his followers as suspected Communists.
When the tensions eventually subsided, Jordan felt compelled to reinterpret the scriptures, hoping to bring a modern context to the well-known story. Jordan was struck by the remarkable similarities between Jesus’ tribulations and those suffered by Koinonia’s adherents 2,000 years later for trying to embrace a Christlike lifestyle. Over the next several years he wrote a series of Cotton Patch versions of scripture, all adapted from the original Greek texts. Jordan went on to become an in-demand speaker and writer, and along with President Jimmy Carter and others helped found Habitat for Humanity.
The Cotton Patch Gospel is widely performed today-a staple for many community and church theaters- perhaps because, of all the musicals based on the life of Christ (Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar etc.) it most closely follows scripture. But the play is also a favorite of activists because it is seen as an allegory for modern-day prejudice, greed and corruption. In keeping with Bluff City Theater’s artistic vision to change up well-known plays when we choose to program them, our production will be performed environmentally at Hannibal City Hall in the second-floor council chamber. But that’s not the only change. Because the play is set in modern times, both Matthew and Jesus are portrayed by female actors- Taylor Pietz (Nancy in Oliver (2015) and Fatiguee in C’est La Vie (2017)) joins local actor and musician Courtney Friday (Aunt Laura in Emily-the Musical 2017). Friday heads up a 4-person bluegrass band who play the various characters in the story. The Bluff City Theater Young Company, made up of amateur children and adults from the region will also be taking the stage in this production.
This is the final music written by Harry Chapin, completed shortly before his death in a car crash (on July 16!) in 1981. Chapin’s score is lively and memorable, but like all his music, also packs a strong social message.
We’re certain that everyone is going to find something to love in this, our final production of 2018. Because of the environmental location, only 70 tickets are available for each of the 9 scheduled performances, so it’s important to reserve your seats as soon as possible.
Tickets are on sale now at www.eventshannibal.com or by calling 573-719-3226. Adult tickets are $26 and youth $15. 4-ticket flex passes are also available for $95. The show opens in preview on Thursday July 26th, with the official opening July 27th. Final performance is Saturday, August 4th at 7:30 p.m. There are two Saturday matinees on July 28th and August 4th.
The Cotton Patch Gospel is generously supported with a contribution from Hannibal Regional Healthcare System.