In 1979 I was thinking hard about what most actors think: “What to do next?” This was an especially keen interest because our second child was on the way and we had no insurance. I was completing a two year national tour portraying C.S. Lewis in C.S. Lewis On Stage, a solo performance which I had adapted from his writing. Because a theater in London had acquired worldwide rights to another one-man script on Lewis, I was not able to perform mine again for four years. My wife, one and a half children and I were living in Atlanta, Georgia. These were the practical circumstances of my search then. That was the necessity, which was, as it always is, going to be the “mother of invention”.
More importantly, although I only perceive this in hindsight, it was a spiritual necessity, a circumstance of my soul, which was set on dramatizing the Christ story to see what God might have looked like and sounded like as a human being. Having grown up in the American South attending a Southern Baptist church, I couldn’t reconcile the shock value of the original story with the mainstream acceptance it had acquired two thousand years later in contemporary culture. How could millions of people over the world for two millennia attend meetings based on the belief that God had come, risen from the dead, and commanded us to love one another, and then, instead of this long global practice accomplishing world peace, the human race appeared to be more than ever set on a course of destroying itself and the very planet on which it existed?
It never occurred to me that the belief of Christendom was inaccurate, but when it came to relieving war, poverty, hunger, torture, murder, greed, rape and prejudice, the details of the Incarnation appeared irrelevant, a curious myth that made for two good holidays in the winter and spring. Perhaps the ritual form, which had been filled with the power of these miracles, had leaked. Perhaps it needs renewal every generation to successfully impact on the present.
Interestingly, in the 1970s, the New Testament not only drove attendance for gatherings in churches at Christmas and Easter, but box office business on and off Broadway for audiences to see Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. And, here is where I had a personal collision with the zeitgeist, vocationally and professionally. The vision that these two musicals gave of the humanity of God was breathtaking. Surely these actors captured more of how Jesus’ face must have looked than all the cinematic versions, which, to me, sent a strong visual message that holiness leaves a countenance similar to that of someone who has had a frontal lobotomy.
But, the plot of these two plays borrowed heavily from the gospels without paying honor to their dramatic conclusions. The Jesus of Godspell lives on in our memory much as George Washington or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The productions of it that I have seen end with the actors carrying the crucified body of Jesus out on their shoulders, but joyously and triumphantly singing the last song of the musical, “Long Live God”. And the story of Christ in Jesus Christ Superstar stops with the crucifixion. That sort of makes a big difference, similar to what a different movie Stephen Spielberg could have made if E.T. never went home because the last frame of the picture is the once adorable creature laying there cold, stiff and dead. Elliot would have certainly grown up to be a different person.
So, before one of my last performances for the next four years of “Lewis”, in Des Moines, Iowa, I was having dinner with the producer beforehand when I spotted a post card advertisement which he had received for Alec McGowan appearing at The Guthrie Theater in Saint Mark’s Gospel, a performance renowned by theater critics in London and New York. McGowan had memorized and performed the entire gospel in the King James Version. What struck me, being from Birmingham, Alabama, was “I could do that from a down-home approach”. My next thought was, “But it would probably be a one-joke idea lacking in authenticity because I couldn’t actually translate the original Greek.” When I casually expressed this idea to the producer, it was then that I was introduced, by him, to the work and life of Clarence Jordan.
All he had to say was that there was actually a person in Georgia, in the 1940s, with degrees in Agriculture and New Testament Greek, qualifying with a Masters of Divinity to be a Southern Baptist pastor, who instead, had started a farming community where black people and white people worked, studied, worshipped and lived together, for me to understand that here was an individual who must have banked his life on the belief that Jesus was still alive.
Within two weeks, I was being graciously received at Koinonia Farm where I was given a tour, stories, and more books, articles and sermons than I could have imagined until I could have sworn the Christ of the Roman Empire was breathing down my neck in the Bible Belt. In two more months, after creating a one-man dramatization based on Clarence Jordan’s paraphrase of the gospels, I was performing Cotton Patch Gospel at colleges in Tennessee, Iowa and California. In another year, I had portrayed in more than fifty states, a Jesus who comes back from the dead real enough to have with his followers a cup of coffee and a slice of pecan pie.
Not only did the application of Clarence’s scholarship in New Testament Greek to the practical work of his life, with all of its consequent suffering and reward, provide a trustworthy map for plotting the place and time of this dramatization, but his insight into the character of Judas was critical for illuminating what would be the pivotal crisis of this story. A crisis, which instead of letting us, two thousand years later, off the moral hook, with the ability which long distance in time and place gives us to fool ourselves into thinking we are now better, slams us right back onto the pressure of the decision we still must make with much the same spiritual equipment, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.”
September, 1981: I’m walking down West 44th Street in New York City on my way to a press interview for the upcoming off Broadway premiere of Cotton Patch Gospel. Harry Chapin wrote the music, his last after a career as one of the great American folk singers and one of the great humanitarians having raised over 5 million dollars for World Hunger. Walking briskly next to me is our publicist. She is a native New Yorker and a Jew. I come from Alabama and I am a Christian.
PUBLICIST: So, I’ve wanted to tell you something I’ve been thinking about this play.
PUBLICIST: I think Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are both about a man who became a God, but Cotton Patch Gospel is about a God who became a man.
April 2003: I’ve performed the play as I originally conceived it—a one man dramatization—and as a musical, with a cast ranging from five to sixteen actor/musicians, in ten productions for over a 1000 performances (when I reached my fortieth birthday, I stopped counting), from New York to Los Angeles and Atlanta to Vancouver. The musical has been published by Dramatic Publishing Company and still receives numerous productions across North America. Recently, a twenty three year old from North Carolina produced it in Charlotte and on opening night raised $15,000 for Habitat for Humanity in El Salvador. Amazon.Com now packages the Cotton Patch Gospel Video and on one visit to their website suggested to me that I might like, Oh Brother Where Art Thou. I’ve had people tell me they re-entered ministry or service work, got off drugs, or broke through suicidal depression as a result of seeing this musical. I’ve also seen full page ads warning the community to stay away from this “blasphemy”, heard from students in a Catholic college production pleading with me to persuade their Bishop to reverse his decision to close down the play and instead perform Godspell because an anonymous caller reported to him that it was sacrilegious, and received a very nervous call from the stage manager of a tour performing it the next afternoon in an outdoor theater in Montgomery because the Klan planned to be positioned in the surrounding woods to shoot the actor for linking the KKK to the lynching of Jesus—the next day, the performance was cancelled, not because the actors backed down, but because a downpour rained out the theater.
Of course, over two decades a lot more happens than the course of one play. The globe turns, galaxies revolve, stars flame out, hearts beat. Friends die, including Harry Chapin, new friends are given. Parents are lost, children are born. Addiction, disease, accident, war and mental illness take so many. So many recover, escape, get sane. Marriage multiplies two people by thirty years and in a room of a hundred people she’s still the one. Three baby boys became three brilliant young men in about two weeks. Two towers, and an era, violently end. Habitat for Humanity, founded by Millard Fuller, inspired by Clarence Jordan, creates affordable housing around the world.
But for this moment, you have come to read this book. Congratulations and get ready. Here is what I hope for you. It’s about what the Publicist said twenty-one years ago comparing three contemporary musicals based on the life of Jesus. We can try to reach toward the Ultimate, and we can also try to receive how the Ultimate is reaching us. This is an effort that I don’t think is exclusive to a certain religion, political platform, nationality or class. It is a human enterprise. And, that is why, I believe it is best illuminated and practiced in that context which can connect people across the boundaries of race, religion or creed, in the common truths of the human experience made clear and visible by the artistic event. That’s why I regard all story, all literature, comic or tragic, as a matter of what is meant by the word “Gospel”, that is, good news.
Once upon a time a Cotton Patch bass player, raised a Pentecostal, for whom we had to have a spittoon on stage and who had played with the likes of Flatt and Scruggs at The Grand Ol’ Opry, said to me:
PENTECOSTAL BASS PLAYER: “You know, when I first heard how you were telling this story, I thought, ‘Humph, That’s sacrilegious’. But, then I thought, “It’s the Truth.”
ME (As JOHN THE BAPTIZER) “Can I hear a ‘Hallelujah?!’”
Tom Key conceived the one-man play Cotton Patch Gospel of Matthew based on the paraphrases of Clarence Jordan, and in 1981 it developed into a musical co-authored with Russell Treyz and a score and lyrics by Harry Chapin. It premiered at The Lamb’s Theater, New York and was awarded two Dramalogue Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Theater.