Local churches use drama to heighten the Easter experience

Easter dramas
- “Home Tonight” First Baptist Church Saltillo, April 10, 11, 12 7 p.m.
- “The Upper Room” Tupelo First United Methodist Church April 9, 5:30 p.m.
- “Jesus:Life, Death and Resurrection” Tupelo First Baptist Church, April 12, 8:30 and 11 a.m.

Three churches are planning dramas they hope will both entertain as well as attract people seeking a different experience of church.
Traditional dramas
Tupelo First Baptist Church is gearing up for a drama titled “Jesus: Life, Death and Resurrection.” According to the Rev. Randy Wood, minister of music, the drama is an overview of Jesus’ life from birth to the cross. It features vignettes from the infancy narratives, as well as from Jesus’ public ministry, passion, death and resurrection.
The drama will feature some 150 performers. It will be interspersed with music and according to Wood it’s the most ambitious production the church has undertaken during his four-year tenure.
“Music and visuals are such strong tools for touching the hearts of people,” said Wood, adding that, although he’s proud of the original dialogue and music, the Easter story really doesn’t need an artist’s touch to enhance its appeal.
“This is the greatest event in all of history,” said Wood. “We just wanted to let it speak for what it is.”
Tupelo First United Methodist Church is also staying with a traditional theme for its Easter drama. “The Upper Room” will be smaller in scale but, like First Baptist’s production, it will be set in the historical context of Jesus’ time.
The drama will focus on the events leading up to the Last Supper and will be told through mini-dialogues between Jesus’ disciples. Director Beth Stone Frick said viewers can expect to see familiar scenes, such as the women preparing the room for the Passover meal, Jesus’ consecration of the bread and wine and ceremonial actions like the washing of feet.
The minimal set and clipped, direct dialogue are meant to communicate the humanity of Jesus and his disciples and the urgency of the moment.
“It’s as though you’re hearing these characters think aloud,” said Frick. “The tension mounts as Jesus enters the city and things get more and more serious.”
“The Upper Room” will be performed in Wesley Hall, the home of First Methodist’s new alternative worship service, “The Invitation.” Frick said the drama is another example of the church tapping into trends in order to reach younger members.
“I’ve heard it called ‘edutainment,’” said Frick. “An essential truth of educational philosophy is that people learn in a variety of ways, some are auditory, some are visual, etc. We try to provide experiences that appeal to all styles and certainly drama is one of those.”
Frick was clear, however, that “The Upper Room” isn’t just a show. “If the message is off-point then the entertainment is hollow,” she said. “We want people to leave with a different insight into scripture.”
Contemporary approach
First Baptist Church Saltillo is taking a more contemporary approach to its Easter drama. Its original production, titled “Home Tonight, is a retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son set in modern times. It tells the story of a wealthy businessman retiring and turning over his business to his sons.
According to the Rev. Bryan Lark, minister of music and one of the creative forces behind the drama, the story of the Prodigal Son is timeless. Still, casting it in today’s world offers a different spin.
“So many people have walked away from the Lord and they wonder ‘Will God take me back?’” said Lark. “With this production we want to emphasize that God is in the forgiving business. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
Like the other productions, First Baptist Saltillo hopes “Home Tonight” will draw people beyond the church community. The Rev. Juston Gates, senior pastor, said part of the inspiration came from a news story he saw recently about a Washington man who identified himself both as an atheist and as a member of a Christian church.
“The guy said he loved the experience,” said Gates. “The candles, the incense, the prayers, songs and sacraments. Then, in the same breath, he said he was an atheist. What he valued was the atmosphere, the fellowship. Those are people that we can reach. If we can bring people in for the experience, perhaps we have a channel for evangelizing,” he said.

Gates said another inspiration was watching his children multitask.
“They can play a video game, e-mail and converse all at the same time and not miss a beat,” said Gates. Like Frick at First Methodist, Gates said his children’s example has revealed something about how young people relate to the world,
“It’s through media and entertainment,” he said. “When they flip on the remote, they’re getting high production quality.” That lesson, Gates said, is proving useful as First Baptist goes about its mission of reaching out to Saltillo’s burgeoning younger population.
The Rev. Raigan Miskelly, associate pastor at First United Methodist, said that after the pageantry and drama of Palm Sunday, it’s easy to feel let down or lose focus during Holy Week.
“A lot of people don’t continue to venture toward the cross during Holy Week,” she said. “A dramatic presentation on Maundy Thursday helps keep people in the experience.”
Lark of First Baptist Saltillo said that, given the heightened emotions that accompany Easter, a dramatic re-interpretation of a familiar story might be just the thing.
“Our area is so saturated with Jesus lingo, and we affectionately call it ‘The Bible Belt,’” he said. “Many people have a genuine relationship with the Lord, but there are so many who have lost hope. That’s what we want to accomplish. We want those who are in despair to leave with hope.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com

Galen Holley/Daily Journal