Jesus in a Mazda

It was surely one of the strangest sights I’d ever witnessed. We were doing “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Green Pastures Campground several years ago and when we sold out all eight performances, we’d scheduled a “two a day” for a Sunday. Anyone who’s performed in a musical knows that doing two performances in a single day is tough. My cast performed their 2 p.m. matinee, then I told them to get something to eat and be back in time for a 7 p.m. cast call. We were hot, sweaty and in need of some cool air, so most of just had jumped into our cars and run to ‘Dosh for ice cream. Since the two shows were so closely timed, some of the cast members didn’t bother to change clothing during our break. It was about 6:30 that evening when I saw a full-robed Jesus pull into the Green Pastures parking lot, sipping on a strawberry shake and driving his Mazda. This was a part of the Bible that my Sunday school teacher had left out.

You can see some mighty strange sights when history and the modern world collide.

A few years later, we did a production of “1776” at Jacksonville’s Sophie Leschin auditorium. Local genius Rob Shaffer had designed and built a beautiful set, which included the hall of the Continental Congress, the streets of Philadelphia and Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom. Rob was a stickler for detail and we could be assured that nothing would be historically inaccurate if Rob was in charge. Nothing, that is, except for the can of Diet Coke. On opening night, the curtains parted to reveal the interior of Jefferson’s Philly apartment with every detail correct … plus a can of soda left by either an actor or a painter. My brother, Keith, and I were playing the roles of John Adams and Ben Franklin and as we entered the stage and looked up into Jefferson’s boudoir, I could see the question in Keith’s eyes. “Is that a Diet Coke sitting right beside the first draft of the Declaration of Independence?” To the credit of the actor playing Jefferson, he didn’t take a drink.

Fritz Klein is without doubt the premier interpreter of Abraham Lincoln now working. He’s appeared in several movies and TV shows playing our sixteenth president and looks more like Lincoln than Lincoln. He’s currently touring the nation with a play of mine called, “The Last Full Measure,” depicting Lincoln’s final moments on earth. The play has a great many sound cues and Fritz often finds himself performing in venues with no technical assistant. I asked him how he overcame this problem. Strange as it may seem, our greatest U.S. President carries a tech fob in the pocket of his 19th century coat. When he’s ready for the next sound cue, he reaches in, pushes a button and his Mac computer in the back of the room produces the music. I’m glad the audience never learns what’s inside Abe’s pants.

The late and dearly loved Ron Gray was the mastermind who spearheaded the Grierson Days for many years in Jacksonville’s Community Park. He once told me of a strange sight he’d seen, as the mounted cavalry was about to reenact a famous battle from the Civil War. Ron said that a Confederate-clad lieutenant from Missouri was discussing the best route home with a fellow soldier. The second fellow took out his GPS and was explaining the best route to his fellow officer. Ron said, “I don’t know. It just seemed weird to have these two guys contemplating a charge upon the Union troops while using a cell phone with a GPS.”

Henry II died in 1189, so I’m fairly certain that he know little about radio, but when we were performing “Lion in Winter” at Pittsfield’s historic East School Theatre, I had the job of portraying this scheming ruler of England. My character had eight children, most of who had schemed against me, so in the play I had three of my boys locked up in a dungeon. I can remember dress rehearsals in which the director had to keep screaming at my youngest son, John, to take off his headphones. The young actor was a Cardinal fan and whenever he didn’t have a line, he’d sneak the ear buds on catch the score.

And finally, speaking of dungeons, the play was “Man of La Mancha.” I was directing and playing Sancho when I spied one of my actors who in his 30-second break offstage during a scene, had run backstage to check his text messages. I grabbed the phone and smashed it against the back wall, surely one of the sweetest noises I’ve ever heard in theatre. Sometimes history and technology come crashing together in a delightful way.

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