Not long before his tragic death in a car accident in 1981, songwriter Harry Chapin composed words and music for a stage musical called Cotton Patch Gospel. With book by playwrights Tom Key and Russell Treyz, it's essentially a darkly comic re-telling of the story of Jesus Christ, set in rural Georgia. The characters speak with exaggerated accents, and the onstage bluegrass band is part of the action.
Before you start looking for Mr. Haney and Arnold the Pig, however, be advised that Cotton Patch Gospel, although it's got loads of laughs, isn't just a cornpone comedy out of some cartoon Hooterville.
It's based on Clarence Jordan's book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. It carries a message, one that Reverend Billy Hester, who's directing a new production of the show for Asbury Memorial Theatre Co., hopes people will receive loud and clear.
"I wish more people knew the story of Clarence Jordan," says Hester, the pastor at Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church. "He was a farmer and a Southern Baptist minister. In 1949, he started Koinonia Farm, and everybody who lived there promised to live non-violent lives."
Located near Americus, Koinonia was a utopian religious community. "It was interracial; think about that in the '40s," marvels Hester.
"Things went pretty well for them in the '40s, but in the '50s and '60s when the Civil Rights movement started growing, the KKK and others were really putting pressure on them." The non-sympathetic governor of Georgia had Jordan and his community "investigated for alleged communist ties."
With Koinonia resident Millard Fuller, Jordan co-founded what would eventually become Habitat For Humanity. His Cotton Patch stories were published just before his own tragic death, from a heart attack, in 1969.
Cotton Patch Gospel, then, is a collaboration between two men, Jordan and Chapin, both dedicated to working against social injustice and the greater good, neither of whom lived to see it performed.
Hester, who has an extensive background in professional theater, saw the original off Broadway production in 1981. When he started doing theater at Asbury, about 20 years ago, Cotton Patch Gospel was always on his wish list. Asbury finally produced it in 1999. This is their second go-round.
"It's very social-justice oriented," he explains. "Clarence was trying to say with the gospel, not so much about getting to heaven but that Jesus' message was more about changing the world as it is now.
"It's funny, and silly in a sense, but at the same time there's some very powerful moments in it, too.
"His purpose was to get people here to try to see what the message was really about. There's a lot of fluff to the show, but when you see these moments, it hits us pretty hard."