RUC Presents: Cotton Patch Gospel

Elise Arsenault | Reporter

"The Best Darn Chapel People Will Ever Come To!"

“Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Men don’t live on grits alone.’” Act I, Cotton Patch Gospel.

Earlier this week, I was able to sit down with Professor and Theatre Director Ray Louter to hear about Redeemer’s upcoming musical production.

“In a nutshell,” he explained,it’s the story of Jesus.”

About 30 years ago, a man named Clarence Jordan did an adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew. He called it the Cotton Patch Gospel, a part of a series translating New Testament books into the prose of the American South in the 1980s. When an actor and musician duo got a hold of the Cotton Patch Gospel, they began to turn it into a musical, and it’s been an incredibly successful show ever since.

“The whole idea of the story is to try — in the way that many writers, dramatist and playwrights have done — to find a way to let the gospel speak in the language of ‘the now.’ When Jesus told the parables, he told them in the idiom of the time. He talked about a Shepherd and sheep. He talked about a rich traveler, dangerous roads, and other images that the people understood.” Redeemer’s theatrical team has drawn the stories even further into the present, hoping to “pull it onto our stage in 2016, with some more contemporary feelings, style and approach.”

What will an audience see when they come to Cotton Patch Gospel?  “We call it a straight-on spiritual revival. We also call it the best darn chapel service people will ever come to! With great music, singing, spirits being stirred, storytelling, and congregational involvement to some extent. We hope that people will have a really genuine experience of the incarnation.”

The production’s framework began about a year and a half ago. “I was looking for a gospel-centred show,” he recounted. “So I thought of the big ones: Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Cotton Patch Gospel. Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell both have awesome musical scores, great for an orchestra. But both are problematic in the sense that they both end up with the Jesus figure dead — the stories are tragedies for that reason. The Jesus-figure dies, and c’est ça.”

“The Cotton Patch Gospel is the whole of the good news — that death is defeated!”

The process began with hiring Janine Noyes as music director in the summer, then casting the entire music ensemble in the fall. “Then,” Prof. Louter shared, “for a whole host of different reasons, we lost three of the musicians, and the one actor who was going to play Jesus.” Those departures were daunting. When the first actor left, the cast and directors immediately began reconsidering the show. Seeing as there were many more women than men, and a specific vocal range required, the role could not easily be filled by a single cast member.

“That’s when we went with the idea of a communally held Jesus role.” The Director beamed as he explained this creative interpretation of the script. “In our Cotton Patch Gospel, the role of Jesus is played by seven or eight different people. What we do is we try to guide, in a symbolic way, the view of the audience, so that they know who Jesus is now. It changes fluidly all throughout the play.”

He then explained that when you ask several people to take pieces of the role, it becomes “theologically rich. It adds complexity, as everyone brings their own understanding to the role.” Some characters are said to embody the “sweet, parental Jesus,” others the “witty, sharp” Jesus, and still others the “innocent, goofy boy Jesus.”

 “They all bring a little piece of themselves into the equation — it creates space for people to think imaginatively about the story. Including the actors themselves.” Prof. Louter admits to wondering whether the audience or cast will be more impacted by the event. “Our hope is that the audience will be touched and changed. That it will be amusing and entertaining, of course, but that they would be deeply touched by the possibility of life that doesn’t end.

“It has a particular kind of poignancy, especially this week.”

He encourages faculty, staff, students, and friends from all spheres to come see the show. In fact, he deems Cotton Patch Gospel “a great primer for reading the Bible for the first time. If there is ever a show that we do here, that would be the show to bring a friend who’s a searching soul — aren’t we all, though — this is a great way to get into the gospel with fresh eyes.”

So if you have yet to see a major event produced by a department on campus yet, this is the time. The show runs from January 26th - 30th, with tickets available at redeemer.ca/cotton-patch.

“Go with your dorms,” urges Prof. Louter, “go with friends, and invite people that are searching. Take their own sorry souls — and come! There’s no reason not to.”