J.B. Murray was called, by a higher power, to do something totally outside his sphere of understanding. And so, in a way, was Mary Padgelek.
Murray (1908–88) was an illiterate potato farmer in Mitchell, a tiny, rural town in northeast Georgia. At the age of 70, he said he had been visited by the Holy Spirit, which instructed him to write, and paint, and spread the word.
Today, Murray’s abstract “folk art” – packed with ghostly, human–like shapes – is prized by collectors around the world.
A freelance artist based in Athens, Padgelek wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Murray, and this became the basis for a book she called In the Hand of the Spirit: The Visionary Art of J.B. Murray.
At the same time, Padgelek and her husband were huge theater fans, and often made trips to New York to catch the latest Broadway musicals.
In 2006, she received her calling.
“I don’t have a musical background, had never written a play,” Padgelek says. “And I’m really not a writer. But when I decided to write this musical, within a month I had written 20 songs. It wasn’t really a conscious thing; it just sort of happened.”
And so Murray’s story was woven into a full–length stage musical, Hands of the Spirit.
“Knowing what I liked about musicals, I went ‘I think this fits,’” she recalls. “It’s a very simple story. That’s what you want for a musical – a simple, direct story that has hope and conflict. This story had the seeds of a good one.”
Through Padgelek’s friendship with Savannah Community Theatre producer/director Tom Coleman, Hands of the Spirit has gone through several years of re–writing, editing, staged readings and workshops. It premieres Dec. 10 and 11 at the Trustees Theater.
In Hands of the Spirit, Gary Swindell stars as J.B. Murray.
“Once I read the script, and realized it was a true story, it carried me along,” says Swindell, who’s Minister of Music at Pentecostal Miracle Deliverance Church in Savannah, and the AfterSchool Initiative choir director at Beach High School.
Swindell is also co–directing Black Nativity, another musical, opening next week.
“I really don’t have time to do this show, but I can’t not do it,” he says. “Even in the first edit of the script, I was taken by the story. And the vibe you get when you read the lines, it’s just so sincere. And there’s some extra stuff going on in that.”
According to Coleman, the script has been whittled down to standard length (it’s two hours and a 15–minute intermission). There are 12 principal roles, plus a gospel chorus from First African Tabernacle Baptist Church, and six dancers.
And 12 songs, all composed by Mary Padgelek.
Says Swindell: “It’s not a standard musical with 20 tunes that carry the plot along. The songs are kind of stream–of–consciousness things in his head.
“They’re very eclectic songs. Some of them sound like Sondheim, some of them sound like ... stuff I’d never heard before, but all the Catholic folk are very familiar with what they call hymnody.”
What attracted Swindell to the project was the blend of theater, music, and deeply–rooted faith and spirituality.
“That whole kind of vibe is what I live on, every day,” he says. “And so to see it from somebody I’d never heard of before, and the kind of experience that this old guy had, just resonates with me. And I really couldn’t imagine anybody else doing it.”
Padgelek says she was fascinated by Murray from her first gaze at the art he created seemingly out of nowhere.
“He’s 70 years old,” she explains. “He’s not really looking for these huge life changes right now.
“It caused quite a few obstacles. His family turned against him, his community didn’t understand him. What inspired me was he just kept at it and didn’t turn back from it. And eventually the audience that I guess it was meant for came to him.”
In fact, she adds, the people in Mitchell – “not exactly an art mecca” – were more or less dumbfounded by Murray’s abstract paintings.
“I was very familiar with the concept of the call, especially within Southern Protestantism,” the playwright explains. “It’s a 2,000–year tradition. He wasn’t an ‘outsider artist.’ I took the point of view that this is what happened to him, he wasn’t schizophrenic, he wasn’t crazy. He was following this scenario.
“Because he wasn’t trained as an artist, he just did what he did, without censoring. These ghostly people came to him, that to him were the people in hell. His message was to tell people there is a hell, and don’t go there, basically. Like any prophet in the Old and New Testament.
“He gives that interior, raw, untrained and un–manipulated picture of what’s going on inside somebody who has this experience.”
Hands of the Spirit
Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11
Phone: (912) 525–5050
Reception: Mary Padgelek will attend a post-show reception Saturday. On display will be original works by Murray and other folk artists.