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Dixieland Gospel

Jesus has returned to our fair city, and he's smack in the middle of a bluegrass musical entitled Cotton Patch Gospel. Hanging out in a barn and eating pecan pie, Jesus is spreading the word, Southern-style.

Cotton Patch Gospel is based on the book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John by Habitat for Humanity founder Clarence Jordan. Also a Southern Baptist minister, Jordan wrote a translation of the New Testament (sans Revelation) in the language of the South during the late '60s. He wanted the text to be better understood by common folks, so instead of proper English and traditional Bible settings, the scripture features a Southern-fried twist.

In Cotton Patch Gospel, Jesus is born in Georgia instead of Bethlehem. The manger is gone; he's laid in an apple box and wrapped in a comforter. He even dies Southern-style by being lynched. He has a great sense of humor and is known to say, "Hey, y'all!"

Throughout the musical, a five-piece bluegrass ensemble plays music by the late Harry Chapin, who wrote "Cat's in the Cradle." It was Chapin's last creation; he died one month after the adaptation was complete.

Cotton Patch offers a modern perspective designed to get audience members to think and laugh. It's a good match for Waypoint Theatre Company, a local faith-based theater group. The nonprofit was incorporated in 2004 and includes members from approximately 13 evangelical churches.

"Members are brought together unified by faith," says artistic director Melanie David. "We have great messages without being preachy. ... We are here to create discussion. Our job is to get people to think."

Waypoint offers two stage shows per year and strives for excellence in its work. David has been directing and acting in Arizona theater productions for 28 years.

"You go to something done at a church and think it will be preachy and badly done. Unfortunately, (sometimes) it is. I have tried very hard to (produce) quality pieces of theater that are thought-provoking and faith-based."

With Cotton Patch, David says "we will no doubt offend many, but that's what Jesus did with His ministry. People just didn't get Him at the time."

She echoes Jordan's wish for active involvement: "We're hoping that this ... piece inspires everyone to be 'participants of the faith--not merely spectators.'"

David says she has had fun with the production. "After nine weeks of rehearsal, we can still laugh. That says a lot about the show."

With Southern idioms and humorous parodies, the musical is sure to surprise with unexpected moments. As Jesus walks on water, one of the disciples exclaims in a Southern drawl, "I swear, that's the biggest duck I've seen in my life." Jesus smiles and greets them with a hearty, "Hey, y'all!"

In another scene, Jesus brings back a 5-year-old girl from death. As she awakens, he kneels down beside her and asks, "How about some breakfast, honey?" No doubt they are having some biscuits and gravy. And when Jesus is tempted by a waiter who is offering him a substitute for holy bread, he replies: "Man does not live by grits alone."

"Jesus is reverently portrayed and humanly portrayed. ... It's important to be able to look at the gospel in a fresh, modern perspective while keeping the reverence," David says. "And this does it."

Only five actors portray the various characters. Waypoint regulars Matt Felzien, Frank Gates, Tynan Orenn, Marc Sandin and Rich Weeks play a total of 48 roles. "No one leaves the stage," says David. "They constantly transition from one character to another."

At the back of the stage, five guest artists from the Desert Bluegrass Association will perform Chapin's score. They are Tim O'Connor on fiddle and mandolin, Rudy Cortese on banjo, Ed Davenport on the upright bass, John Jensen on the dobro and Greg Morton on the guitar.

"These are first-class studio musicians," says David. "The music is very challenging (to perform). ... You will tap your toes. It's very uplifting."

Besides the music, the message behind Cotton Patch is designed to stir your soul. "The bottom line of Cotton Patch is: Love the Lord with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself," explains David.

As a woman of faith, David would like people to see Jesus in a whole new light--as a real person and divine as well. "I hope people say, 'I never knew the gospel could be so entertaining!'"

The Waypoint Theatre Company presents Cotton Patch Gospel at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 11; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, May 12; and 2 p.m., Sunday, May 13, at Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 E. Speedway Blvd. Tickets at the door are $20 for adults, $10 for children 5 to 9, and $15 each for groups of 15 and more; cash and checks only. Doors open 30 minutes prior to show times. A bluegrass jam session will take place 20 minutes before the performance. Call 742-9079 or visit waypoint-theatre.org for information.

More by Irene Messina

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