“It was too big of a message not to do,” Director Linda Hunsucker told the Times-News about the Lincoln Theatre Guild’s upcoming production of Cotton Patch Gospel.
While some people may think a story about Jesus being born in an abandoned trailer, lying in an apple crate and saving the world through death by lynching rather than crucifixion is a tad bit too sacrilegious, Hunsucker and the 11-member cast believe otherwise.
“It’s a message with a twist,” actor Ricky Newton said.
Newton, who plays four different parts in the production, including “John the Baptizer,” “Pilate,” “Reverend Boyd Bissel” and “Peter (aka ‘The Rock’),” encouraged the community to come out and witness a comedic yet serious story filled with “Southern living.”
Cotton Patch Gospel, set in Georgia during the 1960s, was originally a one-man show with a four-piece band written by Tom Key and Russell Treyz.
The Theatre Guild decided to transform the show to include multiple actors dressed in flannel, work boots, cowboy hats and jeans.
Hunsucker felt drawn to direct the play, the first musical she’s headed since the 1980s and the first performance she’s directed with the Guild.
She believed the audience may be able to relate more to the modern-day settings and characters of the play’s faith-filled story better than the settings and characters recorded in the original Christian Gospel in the Bible.
“It (the play) takes religion out of the life and birth of Jesus and puts it on a level you can relate to,” Hunsucker said. “I can’t imagine visiting Jerusalem or a society that tolerates crucifixion, but I can understand Georgia and lynching. (Through the play) you can relate to people in the Bible that you couldn’t before.”
Cotton Patch Gospel better reveals the main purpose for which Jesus came — not to teach politics but “to love your neighbor as yourself,” according to Hunsucker.
Following auditions the first weekend in January, cast and crew practiced three days a week.
For Pat Hatcher, who sings and plays the part of a hotel manager in the show, participating in the play was a chance to fill her retirement days with something new.
“I wondered what I’d do with the rest of my life,” she said.
While the first-time actor was a bit nervous during auditions, Hatcher has since lost her stage fright and looks forward to joining her fellow actors in future musicals.
Hunsucker said she’s enjoyed watching the actors transform over the weeks, gaining confidence and falling into sync with each other, although often times, the group had to take a moment to pause, have a prayer meeting and figure out how to do a scene more closely in line with the Bible.
“It’s been a great group to work with,” she said.
The show additionally features more seasoned actors including Kirk Herbertson, of Lincolnton, who’s been acting since 2003 when he participated in the Guild’s performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Herbertson plays a handful of different characters in this year’s show including a politician, “Dr. Troy,” “Mr. Tedum,” and “Jud,” the nickname for Judas.
“I love it all,” he said of Cotton Patch Gospel, “especially the bluegrass music.”
The show’s four-piece band includes a banjo, Dobro, harmonica and bass, which is played by Hunsucker’s husband John. He also fills the role of “Governor Herod,” Georgia’s head politician who wants Jesus dead after hearing word the new-born baby is meant to one day become a great leader.
The play’s lead role of “Jesus” was given to 15-year-old North Lincoln High School student Ben Brooks, who hasn’t taken the stage since his elementary days.
“I read the story and thought it was really good,” he said.
On the other hand, Nicole Huitt, of Iron Station, had no plans to join the cast until she passed the audition sign one afternoon while en route to the Lincolnton post office for work.
Huitt is one of three women who plays “Satan” and tempts Jesus during his 40 days of fasting, a fast he breaks by eating chili cheese dogs, Hunsucker said.
“I was driving by (the Cultural Center),” Huitt said, “and saw ‘Gospel’ and turned around ‘cuz I’m a Gospel fan.”
Cotton Patch Gospel will show 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Lincoln Cultural Center in Lincolnton. Additional show times will be March 9 and 10. Tickets may be purchased at the door or by visiting lincolntheatreguild.com. For more information, call (704) 452-7830.