Cotton Patch Gospel
Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Written by Shanna Flaschka | Photographed by Joe Worthem | Art provided by Jerry Jordan
Music, philanthropy and family history play a part in OHS Theatre's season finale.
This Easter, the story of Christ takes the stage as Oxford High School’s Theatre Department presents “Cotton Patch Gospel,” a modern musical retelling of the Gospel of Matthew set in Gainesville, Georgia.
Originally produced as an Off-Broadway show in 1982, “Cotton Patch Gospel” follows the story of Jesus from his birth in an abandoned trailer behind the Dixie Delight Motor Lodge through his growth, ministry and death in Georgia. Unlike the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Cotton Patch” features a minimalist set, plenty of laughs, and toe-tapping bluegrass songs.
This musical is based on “The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John,” a reimagining of the Gospels written by the Rev. Clarence Jordan and published shortly after his death in 1969. Jordan, who was also one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity, wrote a series of these volumes as alternative versions of the New Testament books. His goal was to make the stories accessible to country folk in the mid-20th century.
To spread his ministry even further, in 1942 Jordan founded Koinonia Farm with his wife, Florence, and Martin and Mabel England. A Christian community in Americus, Georgia, it was created as a place where people could live peacefully and in racial equality in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. It still stands today, and Jordan’s vision for it is what lit the spark for Habitat for Humanity.
Here’s what makes Oxford High School’s production of “Cotton Patch Gospel” even more meaningful: Clarence Jordan is the late uncle of Oxford’s own Jerry Jordan, a retired music professor at Ole Miss. Jerry Jordan had a first-hand look at the burgeoning charity his uncle inspired.
“The last time I saw my uncle [in Koinonia], shortly before he died, was about the time I graduated from high school,” Jerry said. “He had set up the Fund for Humanity to help low income people have affordable housing. He took my father and me to the back of the farm in his truck and showed us the foundations for the first houses that were to become essentially the first houses for what his protege and successor, Millard Fuller, renamed Habitat for Humanity.
“[My uncle] achieved a certain measure of fame as a theologian and precursor activist in the civil rights movement. However, I don’t think he could ever have imagined that his work would ultimately achieve international notice and acclaim in two entirely different realms — Habitat and Broadway!”
Jerry and his cousin Lenny, Clarence’s son, think Clarence Jordan would certainly have had some opinions about his work being translated into a musical.
“I find the musical inventive, entertain-ing, funny and provocative,” Jerry said. “My uncle was very highly religious and quite critical of organized religion as commonly practiced. Despite being quite humorous himself on occasion, I think he may have had a tinge of concern that the musical was too much of a diversion into entertainment. However, in the end, I feel he would have liked the huge attention it brought to the Gospel message.”
“He was a great storyteller,” Lenny said. “He may have seen this as a stage production of one of the greatest stories — perhaps bringing the story to a new audience.”
Lenny pointed out one aspect of the musical he’s sure his father would approve.
“Regardless of what he thought of the play, I think he would have been moved by the music of Harry Chapin,” Lenny said. “I think Chapin ‘got’ it.”
Chapin, a folk rock singer-songwriter and humanitarian (perhaps best known for his No. 1 hit song “Cat’s in the Cradle”), wrote the music and lyrics for the musical shortly before he died unexpectedly at age 38 in 1981.
Oxford High School theater teacher John Davenport, director of the show, said the musical is meaningful to him as well.
“[‘Cotton Patch’] is one of my favorite pieces,” Davenport said. “I find it so very charming, uplifting and most importantly, relatable.”
Even so, he wasn’t quick to produce the show this year.
“I was reluctant to choose ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ since we have done this piece here before [in 2011], but after my students heard some of it and viewed a video of the original Off-Broadway production, they were quite excited at the possibilities,” Davenport said. “This will be my fifth time to be involved with a production of ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ in my career.”
Thirty-five students were cast in the production, including Graham Golman as Matthew; David Torrent as Jesus; and LilaGrace Lara as Jud. Michael Scruggs, Noel Torma, Damarius Wilson and Sarah Jane Yerger comprise the main quartet; others will play disciples and be part of the ensemble.
The timing couldn’t be better: the show will be presented just in time for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Jerry Jordan and his wife, Jean, have contributed additional funds to the production and will be honored in the playbill as “presenters.”
“We are very grateful to the Jordan family for taking an interest in this particular production and we want to make it equally as special for them, as this play is based on a book that was written by a member of their family,” Davenport said.
The sponsorship seems to be a touching way to honor both Jerry Jordan’s uncle as well as the alma mater of his and Jean’s sons, Josh, Jenner and Jacob.
“We are most proud to have this opportunity to support the arts and these dedicated students and faculty at Oxford High,” Jerry said.
“Cotton Patch Gospel” will be performed in the Kayla Mize Auditorium at Oxford Middle School at 7:30 p.m. April 18-20. Tickets are $11 and can be purchased online at squareup.com/store/ohs-theatre or at the door.