Published October 27, 2005
Theatrical Outfit will extend the run of its popular production of “Cotton Patch Gospel” until Nov. 20 in the Outfit’s new home at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s in downtown Atlanta.
It is the first show to launch the 2005-2006 Outfit season and is an all-time favorite with area audiences. “Cotton Patch Gospel” was written by the Outfit’s executive artistic director, Tom Key, and Russell Treyz, with music and lyrics by the late Harry Chapin. The show features Key in the lead role, along with vocalists Eric Moore and Alecia Robinson, backed up by a five-member blue grass band. Directed by Susan Reid with a new scenic design by Rochelle Barker, the show presents a new take on what began more than 25 years ago as a one-man show, based on Gospel paraphrases by Clarence Jordan, who founded in 1942 the Koinonia Christian community fighting racism and materialism in Americus, Ga. Key originally conceived Cotton Patch as a one-man play adaptation of Jordan’s writings and performed it as such in 1980 before meeting Harry Chapin, a renowned folk-rock musician, social activist and humanitarian of the 1970s, and Russell Treyz, with whom he wrote this adaptation. The music and lyrics were perhaps the last songs Chapin wrote before his tragic death in 1981 in an auto accident a month before the show’s off-Broadway opening.
“Cotton Patch Gospel” tells the story of the Gospel of Matthew set in the South in modern times. Mary and Joseph are traveling to a tax audit, when they stop overnight in Gainesville where the baby Jesus is born. Later scenes include Jesus and his family attending the giant “Believe in the Bible” Conference in Atlanta, and the adult Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount at Stone Mountain.
Key noted the special power of the Gospel story set in Georgia. “By taking away the familiar setting, it gives the audience the gift of knowing what it might have been like to be there when Christ was alive. The set evokes the chaos of the urban, industrialized, wired place in which we live—cotton is present but not as a pretty plant in a land far away, but more as a product with all its cost to our human history—the costuming is done so that these people are not part of the mainstream or a sub-culture, but part of what I think Christianity is, a counter-culture,” Key explained. “It’s this setting into which order, melody, beauty, Christ himself comes. It gives people of all faiths and philosophies an opportunity to encounter this Greatest of all Stories.”
Key believes that in their new home in the Balzer Theater, the play is much more intimate and therefore much more powerful and that the acoustics and sight lines are great for any play there. Between 2002 and 2005, the Outfit raised more than $5 million to renovate the historic building, the former Herren’s Restaurant, creating an intimate, state-of-the art venue.
“Because the nature of the Christ story is so personal, I think that the small space is a great match of form and content—that is, Cotton Patch Gospel in a big, slick setting is really going to clash with its message,” he said.
This show has new text in this production from Matthew 5. “I felt it was more important now than ever for us to hear once again, ‘pray for your enemies.’ The dialogue surrounding terrorism of ‘they are evil and we are good, they are barbarians and we are civilized’ is not enough—Christ takes us further,” said Key, a convert to Catholicism. Furthermore, “in the past the play has ended with the affirmation, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself,’ but now I believe it’s more important to end with the question posed by Chapin’s lyric, ‘If a man tried to take his time on earth to prove before he died what one man’s life could be worth, I wonder what would happen to this world.’”
Key, who plays Jesus, John the Baptist, and various other characters, experiences his own conversion through the performances. “No matter how dark or weak or angry of a place in which I might be, no matter how tough the audience might seem on a given night, by the time Jesus comes back from the grave and says ‘He’ll be hanging right in there with us…’ we, the audience and cast, are all standing and shouting and ready to go out and believe all over again his kingdom is coming because the dramatic art has brought him into our heart anew.”
All performances are at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, located at 84 Luckie St. in downtown Atlanta. Evening shows are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m. There is also a matinee Saturday, Nov. 19.
Season tickets are still available. Single tickets range from $15 to $50 depending on the night of the week. To purchase, call Theatrical Outfit at (678) 528-1500, buy in person at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s Box Office, 84 Luckie St. (corner of Luckie and Forsyth Streets) or online at www.theatricaloutfit.org.