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February 2, 1999

The Gospel According to Cotton Pickers: A Review

by Ernie and Pat Pinson

One who frequents the Mobile community theaters is being invited to ask, I suppose, why three out of five plays produced this season have been musical, and more specifically, why back- to-back religious/musical productions were presented at The Mobile Theater Guild. At first glance the production staff could argue that the dual musical/religious topic of Nunsense Jamboree (Oct 9, 98) and Cotton Patch Gospel (Jan 19, 99) is sort of like shadow boxing. The first is Catholic, the second Baptist; the first is female dominated, the second all male; the first is a young woman trying to break into the secular world of music, the second a young man trying to start a new religion; the first has five characters, the second only a single narrator and an on- stage band. Thus, one could argue the production staff wishes to juxtapose for the sake of a balance offering.

While this parallelism of the two plays could easily continue, the more important parallel is between the rustic setting, the vernacular language of the masses, the Country/Bluegrass music, and the nonprofessional actors on the one hand; and the appeal of Christ as "one among you, not above you" on the other. This, it seems to us, is both the source of genius and the popularity of the two plays. It therefore becomes all the more appealing to those of us in the audience when Cotton Patch Gospel is performed by amateurs who (like Jesus) teach the people the truths of religion. Thus as Jesus the amateur threw out money changers in the Jerusalem temple, so He threw out the money grabbers in the First Baptist Church of Gainsville, Georgia; as Jesus rebuked the Pharisees of Judaism, so in Cotton Patch He rebuked the modern TV evangelism naysayers. So the presumed nonprofessional Cris Smith uses the mannerism, language and easy-to-grasp logic of the nonprofessional Jesus. And so it is we of the audience relate better to one of our own performing before us on stage.

It is in this vein that Cotton Patch takes on characteristics of the early Greek plays, and for the same reason--to instruct the masses in the doctrines and values of the gods (except in the case of the Greeks, the masses could not read the text for themselves). Like the early Greek plays, there was music and a dialogue between actor and chorus, and in the plays of Thespis, a single narrator was engaged by a choral group (as witnessed in Friday night's performance). Like the early Greek plays, also, there was the barest of sets and props, almost as if a fear exists that the material set would run counter to the metaphysical teachings.

This play is, of course, based on The Cotton Patch Gospel of Matthew and John as rendered by Clarence Jordan's book. But the decision of dramatists Tom Key and Russell Treyz to follow a strict chronology of Jesusí life limits the structural possibilities of drama. The play depends too much on its source, and the music and wit must carry a heavy burden of a production lacking in dramatic tension. The slew of songs (20 in Nunsense, 18+ in Cotton Patch), and the prolific verbal puns and witticisms indicate that both plays depend upon music and humor as their means of appeal and their presumed message in lieu of a dramatic plot.

There is similar heavy burden on Cris Smith as Matt the narrator. He somehow must carry the entire cast in an extremely long, taxing monologue. He is a member of the chorus, a soloist, Matthew the writer/narrator, Joseph, Jesus, Satan, Pilot, Judas, High Priest, Peter, TV evangelist, tax collector, and God all wrapped into one actor. He must be able to play multiple roles in a flash (father-son, Jesus-Satan), dance, sing solos, harmonize, shout, moan, cry, and smile almost in a single breath. And although Cris Smith did all of this admirably, it is too much of a burden to place on a single person--even Jesus couldn't please everybody. Cris is surely a physical, emotional, mentally drained vacuum at play's end.

For all these reasons you should see the play. We think the role of Christ was portrayed a little too soft, too childlike, a tad sissy, not as mature or as championed as He might have been as the defiant antagonist and leader of a new world order, and hence not as admirable a hero as we would like. Go and see if you agree or disagree, and in the process enjoy a good play by and for the masses.

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001