Jesus, dinosaurs, and the resurrection of the musical in tourist-happy Somervell County.
David L. Humphrey often seems pleased to find himself wherever he happens to be, and every Saturday in May he finds himself, quite cheerfully, at the Texas Ampitheater in Glen Rose. He is typically equipped with the following: a black director’s chair with his name printed on the seat back, which he rarely sits in; a silver microcassette recorder for dictating his rehearsal notes; a bottle of Propel flavored water; and a binder containing the script of The Promise, an epic musical drama of the life of Christ. Humphrey is the executive producer and director of The Promise, and on the morning I first arrived at the ampitheater to watch a rehearsal, he was standing below the edge of the stage, facing a bank of bright orange auditorium seats. Fifty or so of his cast members were dispersed across the first dozen rows, digging their breakfasts out of fast food bags. There were more men than women; most of the men were over 30 and had ponytails, moustaches and beards, giving them the collective appearance of a group of well-groomed bikers.
“This week we have some great things happening,” announced Humphrey, who speaks in the warm, well-enunciated manner of a Baptist minister. “I couldn’t sleep last night, I was so excited. Are there any prayer requests? Any praises?” One cast member offered that it was another person’s birthday, and everyone sang a rousing “Happy Birthday To You,” the last line drawn out with hammy harmonizing. A light moment, followed by a serious one: All bowed their heads as Humphrey intoned a pre-rehearsal prayer. “Thank you for this day and for what you’ve given us,” he said. “Help us as we portray you and yours that were around you in the first century and the second century. Let us all be your kingdom. Help us be the best actors we can be. In Jesus name, Amen.”
I’d arranged to sit in on rehearsal after reading about The Promise on Glen Rose’s website. With fewer than 2,500 residents, Glen Rose is the largest town in Somervell County, itself a rocky smidgen of a place about sixty miles southwest of Fort Worth. The website, which I encountered by accident, lists the county’s attractions, including:
Comanche Peak nuclear power plant, Dinosaur Valley State Park, known for its dinosaur tracks, The Promise, an epic musical drama of the life of Jesus Christ, presented annually from June to October, the Creation Evidences Museum, run by prominent creationist Dr. Carl Baugh, and twelve Bed and Breakfasts, four sets of cabins, four hotels, three lodges, and three camps.
A curious combination, I thought after scanning the list. Worth a visit.
To drive to the Texas Amphitheater, you turn off of U.S. 67, Glen Rose’s main commercial artery, and pass between a new-looking county Expo Center and an even newer-looking Dinosaur Valley Inn and Suites, before winding your way up a large, lush hillside, carpeted with cedar and oak and a few big new houses. Unlike the flat prairie to the east and west, Somervell County is a northern outpost of Texas Hill Country, and if you drive in from the southeast its rocky green terrain comes as a sudden, appealing surprise-a fact not lost on the developers. Land that frustrated the would-be farmers who settled there a hundred years ago has become valued real estate in this age of the Great View: The road to the amphitheater has been seeded with realtor’s signs, as well as a future subdivision’s brick entry marker and blacktop ring road. And then, at last, there is the theater itself, a boxy Greco-Roman titan sunk into the hillside. High sand-colored arches frame the stage which, according to its designers, could comfortably hold the Somervell County Courthouse. There are some 3,000 units of stadium seating in front, and a moat between the stage and the seats. In the show, the moat serves as both the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. When it is the latter, an artificial storm pours down into it from the lighting scaffold above, until Jesus calms it.
I showed up at the amphitheater at nine a.m., just as things were getting started. Rehearsals for The Promise are good-natured but serious, as per the advice given to cast members on top of the printed practice schedule: Please bring water, (no glass & no pets) snacks, sun screen, hat, and walking shoes. It will be a hot day! You will need all the help you can bring. We will work hard and fast! After the prayer, it was indeed time to start working hard and fast. “Okay, Pharisees, you’re over there,” Humphrey said, pointing to stage right. “Apostles in the center, and I’ll be over here with the family.” Contemporary Christian music started up over the sound system, and as the cast began filing onto the stage, a latecomer in jeans and a denim shirt descended the theater’s center aisle. He was a fortyish man with wavy dark blonde hair falling past his shoulders, and right away I was pretty sure he must be Jesus-not just because he looked like you might expect an American Jesus to look, but because he gave off a strange sense of calm that a Jesus might be expected to give off. If it weren’t for that, I would have been confused, because before this one showed up, I’d had another guy pegged for Jesus. (I found out later that the first one was Jesus’ understudy.) The principal Jesus is Randall Sterrett, a former forklift technician and now a supervisor of forklift technicians in Arlington. Jesus is a role he loves to play, he later tells me. On a good night, he says, he hates to leave the stage.
Partial list of roles in one scene (“marketplace”) of The Promise: Potter, Olive Vendor #1, Olive Vendor #2, Baker, Baker’s Apprentice #1, Baker’s Apprentice #2 , Bread Thief, Fish Monger, Zealot Arms Dealer, Seller of Lemons, Seller of Dried Apricots, Seller of Fresh Apricots, Seller of Peaches, Sellers of Cherries #1, Seller of Cherries #2, Seller of Grapes #1, Seller of Grapes #2, Seller of Limes, Seller of Rope, Seller of Belts, and Seller of Dung. The Seller of Dung part was created by the properties department, after a batch of dark rolls made for the Baker were found to resemble animal excrement. Properties Mistress Priscilla Locke told me that the actor assigned the part was delighted to be playing the Seller of Dung, but when I asked him directly, 12-year-old Josh Gordon wrinkled his nose. “I don’t really like it,” he admitted.
Ninety-seven paid actors and thirty-nine volunteers make up this year’s cast of The Promise, which is now in its thirteenth season. Most of the actors and technical crew live in the area and hold other jobs: auditor at the Best Western, electrical maintenance technician at Comanche Peak, teacher, retired airline pilot, Southwestern Bell service representative. Many return year after year, auditioning in April, rehearsing in May, and performing every weekend all summer long. Despite the large group and tight schedule, it was seldom that I heard Humphrey or one of his assistant directors raise his or her voice–and the exceptions had a certain charm: “Let’s go Jesus! Let’s go Apostles! You’re late!”
Many of the performers are deeply committed to the show. I was told that the 5-year-old who plays Jairus’ daughter (a dead girl brought back to life by Jesus) has been keen on the part since she was two. Other children I spoke with had auditioned for four and five years before making the show. One of several adult actors who explained their roles to me quite fervently was Mary Lou Shaw: “During the crucifixion scene I’m one of the mourners,” she said. “I am just as afraid to be there as the next mourner. These people could put me to death. I cry real tears there because I’m trying to get Scripture in motion across this moat into as many lives as His spirit can touch.”
The cast breaks down into smaller bands, the most visible and cohesive one being the group of older men who play the Sanhedrin. They sometimes refer to themselves as the Sanhedrin and sometimes as the Bad Boys Of the Promise (B-BOP), a reference to the fact that they are the ones to condemn Jesus in the play. For a Christian, they say, beating up on Jesus can be trying, even if it is just an act. “As actors we try to get the audience to suspend disbelief,” says David Clinkscale, a college history instructor who plays the high priest Caiaphas. “But for us, it’s suspension of belief.” At rehearsals, when they’re not running through one of their scenes, the Bad Boys hang loose in the theater seats, offering one another fellowship, sunscreen and SnackWells bars. Many of them have been Bad Boys for years, and they are a tight-knit group, praying together in a circle before each performance. They wear some of the better costumes: Caiaphas himself wears a white tunic, long purple smock with bells on the bottom, a jeweled breastplate, and in one scene, a big white hat not unlike the top of a giant Dairy Queen ice cream cone.
In addition to the Bad Boys, there is Satan. I am told The Promise is the only outdoor passion play in the country (out of six) with a Satan. In fact this year there are two Satans: Kirk Corley, who is also the show’s fight choreographer, and Paul Schmidt, a doctor in Glen Rose. They are both very nice. Corley is solidly built, with thick dark hair and a dark beard he stripes with silver makeup for the show, and he looks devilish enough onstage, when he has on his black spangle-studded cape and black leggings. But offstage, in a leather outback hat, shorts, and sandals, he is downright jaunty, and clear about his limitations. “Honestly, I can never be as evil as Satan is, ever,” he says.
It was not until after lunch on that first day that I heard my first Promise song, “Magnify.” All the accompaniment and background choruses for the show are pre-recorded, and the actors, wearing microphones, sing along. “Magnify,” sung by pregnant Mary as she and Joseph cross the stage on their way to Bethlehem, seemed familiar, yet jarring. Familiar, I later realized, because the music is quite similar to the old theme song from the television show “Hill Street Blues,”–only here it was being turned into a hymn of praise by an earnest 15-year-old girl (“Magnify the lord/ Sanctify the lord/ Praise his holy name forever…”).
I liked the next bit of singing a lot better: the Bad Boys railing and scheming in their den. Some-thing Must Be Done, Some-thing Must be Done Soon, they chant in ominously deep voices.
Imagine one of those Timetables of History made up for Somervell County, with significant events and ages marked along its length. It would begin with the creation of the universe, move on to the time of the dinosaurs, then on to that of the Tonkawa Indians, the Comanches who drove them off, the Anglos who drove the Comanches off, then Prohibition, and, finally, the construction of the nuclear power plant. This last hash mark (1973) would represent what, in recent times, has come to separate Somervell County Present from Somervell County Past.
Somervell was once among the poorest counties in Texas. The current mayor of Glen Rose, Connie Kirk, grew up in a neighboring county and remembers that in high school, she felt sorry for the Glen Rose sports teams because their facilities were so lousy. Now, a sign as you drive into town points you toward the high school’s substantial athletic complex. Other fruits of power plant taxes and population growth are strung along Highway 67: a hospital, a supermarket, the Expo Center and the Best Western, a large red brick auditorium, the matching red brick high school. Some say the social life of the town has also changed. It used to be the kind of place where everybody was related to everybody else, where without a long history in the county it was hard to get a job or to be accepted socially, where what people did when they weren’t working was go to church three times a week, or drive to a restaurant in another town. But the plant attracted newcomers, and eventually so did the greatly-improved schools, and as the town expanded it became more open. These days, “it seems like every time somebody gets murdered or kidnapped in Dallas or Fort Worth, more people move here,” says Susan Molder, executive secretary for The Promise. The majority of people I met in Glen Rose had come to the area three or five or eight years ago, and most of those from the Metroplex, as they all referred to the Dallas-Fort Worth area (not from a particular suburb, not from Irving or Arlington or Mesquite, but from the Metroplex, invoking with just that word a synthetic vastness of highways, office towers and criminals–a crowded, thankless place they were glad to have left.)
The Promise has had a significant part to play in the transformation of Glen Rose. With Comanche Peak filling its coffers, the county experienced an outbreak of ingenuity. All sorts of schemes for how the money might be spent were presented to the Commissioners’ Court, the amphitheater among them. Kingdom Development, the for-profit owner of The Promise, began lobbying the county to build a theater in the mid-eighties, and according to Mayor Kirk and Kingdom executives, two men in particular were receptive to the idea: Hubert Beck-peanut farmer, County Commissioner, and deacon in his Baptist church-and County Judge George Crump, both of whom have since passed away. The amphitheater was completed in 1989, and today the corporate headquarters of Kingdom/The Promise occupies a refurbished movie house right on the town square.
I made a second trip to Glen Rose during the week leading up to The Promise’s opening night. One day, I went to see David Humphrey in his downtown office, which is decorated with Promise posters, a map of Israel, and a collection of stuffed-animal camels. He is a remarkable looking man. At 63, he is suntanned and square-shouldered, with a trim grey beard; long, narrow eyes beneath long, arched brows; a broad forehead; and a silvery sweep of hair that finishes in a single curl shooting straight out from his neck. He favors dark clothes and drives a silver Jaguar. He has spent his career working in the fields of Christian drama and music; it’s Humphrey who is largely responsible for the show’s having been patterned after a Broadway musical. “When I was growing up in the forties and fifties in Tyler, we didn’t have musicals. We would do church plays out of a book: Baker Religious Plays,” he says. In the 1960s, Humphrey says, people began writing church musicals for youth, a fact he attributes to the open and experimental spirit of the times. “The Vietnam War and the psychedelia, the hippies… things were happening. People felt they could do almost anything to reach out.”
In 1968, Humphrey moved from Texas to Florida to become director of the Music and Fine Arts department at Palm Beach Atlantic College, a new Christian school, at the invitation of the founder, Jess Moody. It was an opportune place to learn about musical theater. “We realized we had a lot of Jewish producers living in Palm Beach who had retired from New York Broadway, who had a lot of money, big homes, and nothing to do, and their wives wanted them out of the house,” Humphrey recalls. “So Dr. Moody said let’s go find these guys. We went to the Sail Fish Club, which is where a lot of them were, and met some of them. They said, ‘Well, great.’ We did The Music Man with the guy who first produced The Music Man. We did Oklahoma with the guy who first produced Oklahoma. We did Carousel with the guy who first produced Carousel.”
“That’s how I learned,” continues Humphrey. “I learned how to put songs together, how to put musicals and dramas together from the first concept to the end product.”
Kingdom Development boardmembers had originally thought they might underwrite a more traditional drama, but Humphrey wanted a musical, and prevailed. The original script was written by a former speechwriter for Oral Roberts, while Humphrey (who emphasized to me that he was not in any way allied with Oral Roberts) revised it and added music with the collaboration of music producer Gary Rhodes. One thing Humphrey learned from his mentors in Palm Beach was that hit songs sell a show, and because The Promise is a Christian show, that meant using Christian hits-such as “In The Name of the Lord,” a contemporary hymn originally sung by one of the most popular Christian artists of the 1980s, Sandi Patti Helvering. In 1993 and 1994, The Promise traveled to Russia, performing at the Kremlin State Palace. And in 1995, original director Michael Meese moved to Branson, Missouri, to start a smaller, year-round production of The Promise in that city, taking the original Jesus with him. In Branson, something of an entertainment mecca for the RV set, The Promise is performed twice a day, sometimes seven days a week. According to Kirk Corley, who spent two years with the Branson show before returning to Texas, entertainers there are a tight group. In Branson, he appeared in 840 performances, playing the Apostle Matthew, and joined The Promise softball team. “We got whipped soundly by the Osmonds,” he says. “The Osmonds had a really good team.”
After the Texas Amphitheater was first built, the Fort Worth chapter of the ACLU challenged the county on the grounds that it had used public funds to build a theater for a religious play, violating the First Amendment. “The ACLU wanted to shut down the theater, so we started a backup little theater. I went to the library and found a little play called Somervell Saga,” recalled Priscilla Locke. “That became a hotel,” she told me, pointing to the Sanhedrin set. “And that became the inside of a house. Pilate’s set was a courthouse. We were able to use everything differently, and the ACLU dropped their suit.”
(Don Jackson, an ACLU board attorney involved in the suit, remembers it differently. Originally, Jackson says, The Promise was going to lease the county-built amphitheater for its exclusive use. The parties negotiated until the county and The Promise agreed that the amphitheater would be used for other shows as well.)
Some of the props listed in a database on Locke’s portable computer: five camel packs, three Roman horse dressings, dozens of pottery jars, twenty-five eggplants, thirty-two baskets, one hundred eighty-one fishes, seven shepherd’s crooks, three bunches of onions, the dung, twenty-two tambourines, twelve crucifix nails, nine scrolls, ten urns, six swords, four long knives. Locke, a youthful grandmother, is a diligent researcher and a detail fiend. She admits that she is the type of person who gets very irritated if, while watching a period movie, she spots a pillow that is obviously stuffed with foam rather than feathers. She says she can accomplish more or less anything with hot glue, duct tape, safety pins, bailing wire and deck screws; or if worse comes to worse, just plain hot glue.
The most famous person in Glen Rose is artist Robert Summers, whose works include a nine-foot statue of John Wayne in the Orange County Airport and a sculpture of a trail drive in Dallas, once called “the largest bronze cow sculpture in the world,” by The New York Times. If you run for elected office in Somervell County it helps to have Summers’ endorsement. Many people in Glen Rose mentioned to me that Summers lives there. I found it a little strange that no one mentioned the writer John Graves, who is well known in Texas for his writings about, among other things, his ranch in Somervell County. In fact it was some time before I realized that I was in the county where John Graves lives. “I didn’t realize John Graves lives in Somervell County,” I finally remarked to a local.
“Yes, John Graves lives here, and Bob Summers lives here too,” she said.
Graves wrote about Glen Rose’s first tourism boom in his book Hard Scrabble. The Scotch-Irish farmers who settled in the county were so discouraged by the land’s poor yield that many either left or took up bootlegging, and in the twenties the town became “a sort of spa… with some fine malodorous sulfur springs and a pretty location on the little Paluxy [River] between the dark hills and a good many chiropractors and ‘rubbing doctors,’ some with a reputed magical healing touch.”
The town’s whiff-of-scandal history has now become a selling point: For Glen Rose’s seventy-fifth anniversary, Mayor Kirk had mason jar-style commemorative drinking glasses made. Other local selling points include the state park with the dinosaur tracks, an endangered and exotic animal ranch, the Expo Center, an 18-hole golf course, the pretty downtown square, and of course The Promise. The selling itself has lately become quite pronounced, as the mission to transform Glen Rose from a quaint town into a Travel Hub is pursued on several fronts. One morning, I paid a visit to the brand new location of the Glen Rose Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, on Highway 67 in a new commercial building to be shared by the Bureau, a travel store and a Texaco station. Donna Schott, the Bureau’s sweet-voiced and enthusiastic director, was just in the process of moving her office from a little downtown house to the new site, where she was joined by Ted Oliver, former marketing director for The Promise and now the head of Paluxy Tours and Marketing, which arranges local travel packages, and is also stationed in the Texaco-station strip.
“Glen Rose has so much to offer, it’s easy to promote,” said Schott, who moved to the town three years ago. “And we’re working with a new concept of inbound travel packages. If you want to visit Glen Rose and Granbury we can put that package together at a better price than if you bought it all individually.” (Granbury is a nearby hamlet of the Ye Olde Touriste Trappe variety, whose Disneyfied core boasts two live theaters as well as the standard opportunities to purchase antiques, stick candy, scented candles, unusual flavors of marmelade, mediocre art, etc. I found it very difficult to cross the street in Granbury due to the number of cars circling, piranha-like, around the courthouse square.)
“The concept we’re working on is: What is your dream?” said Oliver, a snowy-haired former sheet metal equipment salesman in short sleeves and shiny caramel-colored boots, who commutes some 70 miles to Glen Rose from his home in Mineral Wells. “We can fulfill that dream, whether it’s the B and B concept, events, theater, activity in Granbury as well as here. Tourism is a real major, moving industry. It has not even begun to see its peak yet. Every little community has something of history and heritage to offer if they just could understand how to utilize them.”
I was suddenly dismayed by the unpleasant thought that the Glen Rose town square might one day look like the Granbury town square.
Business has been good for Paluxy Tours and Marketing. “I just booked two contracts, one for $12,000, one for $8,000,” said Oliver.
“Oh Ted, that’s wonderful!” exclaimed Schott.
“We’re patterning what we’re doing after what Branson has done very successfully. We can add so much value to their trip; I just put this together for $210 per person for 3 days.”
“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, that’s wonderful!” said Schott, “In Dallas the cheapest trip we could package averaged $100 a day. My gosh, Ted, that’s wonderful!”
In Granbury, noted Oliver, theaters and hotels have collaborated to offer a Thursday night package. “We’ve thought about the idea of a Thursday night show for The Promise,” he said.
“Maybe a Thursday night special?” said Schott.
“That’s the whole idea of Thursday nights.”
“It’s on our list.”
Selected hazards of performing in The Promise: The Camel. One of about thirty animal actors in the play, the Camel has been known to spit, kick, and go to the bathroom on stage. “Nobody wants to walk behind the camel,” I’m told. “You have to tiptoe through the tulips, as they say.”
Wigs and Beards. Uncomfortable and hot, which is why so many men in the show grow out their hair. Also, one year Jesus’ wig came off in the River Jordan while he was being baptized.
Pyros. Various pyrotechnic devices shoot smoke and sparks during Satan’s scenes. Actors should not stray too close to the pyros. Already this year, one costume was seriously damaged in a pyro incident.
I was disappointed to learn that Dr. Carl Baugh, founder and director of the Creation Evidences Museum, was away on an archaeological dig during my time in Glen Rose. Nevertheless I paid a visit to the museum, housed in a dusty pink trailer near the state park entrance. According to Baugh, huge human footprints, an ancient hammer, and a fossilized human finger have been discovered near the Paluxy dinosaur tracks, bolstering the creationist theory that dinosaurs and man lived contemporaneously before the Flood. The perimeter of the one-room museum was lined with related items, such as an aquarium containing a diorama of plastic human and dinosaur figurines, a large replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex head, a cast of the fossilized finger, and a blown-up old photograph of an abnormally large man-whose size is offered as proof that very large footprints might be made by a human. Though he was not present in fact, Baugh beamed down at visitors from a television screen toward the rear of the museum, explaining on videotape how all the evidence fits together. Behind the television was one of Baugh’s experiments, a large white gas tank with an oscilloscope on top and a window cut into the side, through which visitors may peer in at an unlively brown snake. This was, apparently, an investigation into the effects of pre-flood atmospheric pressure on animals.
Twenty-one-year-old Scott Chapman, a Glen Rose native who plays the Apostle Matthew in The Promise, works as an assistant to Dr. Baugh. Chapman noted to me that in addition to directing the museum and writing books, Baugh hosts the weekly television program “Creation in the Twenty-First Century” on the Trinity Broadcasting Network-and because TBN broadcasts in Europe, Baugh is a figure of international renown. “Some friends of mine were in Paris, they were sitting in their hotel room, and they thought, ‘Let’s see what French TV is like.’ So they turned on the TV and they were like, ‘Hey, it’s Dr. Baugh!'”
The future of Glen Rose is in the hands of visionaries–or at least one visionary, who operates out of another small commercial center on the highway. At the recommendation of Mayor Kirk, I went to see real estate agent Donna Hutchinson, whose husband Douglas Hutchinson, along with four other partners, has begun work on a development called Paluxy Summit.
“My husband is a visionary,” she said, her intense blue eyes widening as she spoke. (During my visit Mr. Hutchinson seemed to be working in his office, but did not emerge.) Paluxy Summit currently encompasses the Texaco travel plaza where I met with Schott and Oliver, a restaurant, and a large undeveloped parcel of land. Last year, the Dallas Business Journal reported that Douglas Hutchinson and his partners, doing business as Glen Rose Ventures, have envisioned an $80 million “AdventurePlex” for that parcel, whose lures might include a robotic dinosaur museum, a water park, a miniature golf course with interactive displays, a theater, a television studio, a dinosaur robotics manufacturing plant and two motels. When I visited her office, Mrs. Hutchinson said she couldn’t discuss any of the plan’s specifics on the record (citing pending contracts and SEC regulations) or even confirm that there is a plan, but she was able to convey something of what might have inspired such a plan, if there had been one. “What our deal is, we perceive this area to be an adventure getaway,” says Mrs. Hutchinson. Although Glen Rose is already the Dinosaur Capital of Texas, she said they would like it to be designated the state’s Adventure Capital as well.
In coming up with the Paluxy Summit concept, collaborators “networked and looked at what was already here,” she said. “Adventure, that’s what we saw. All different types.” The first installment at Paluxy Summit, an exploration-themed restaurant called the Lewis and Clark Café and Trading Company, has already been completed. “Our thing is that Lewis and Clark really did come to Texas, they just didn’t tell anybody they got lost. It’s not in the history books, because it was an expedition financed by the government,” said Hutchinson. Then she leaned over her desk and dropped her voice to little more than a whisper. “That’s not a true story,” she confided.
That the natural history of one small county could inspire John Graves’ writings, Carl Baugh’s creationist theories, and the Hutchinsons’ adventurous vision might perhaps serve as a testament to the variety and suppleness of the human imagination. Or maybe there’s something funny in the water.
I ate one lunch at the Lewis and Clark Café. Despite its “original” menu written in explorer dialect (quiche is “keesh,” soup is “soope,” etc.), and the fanciful upside-down camping scene suspended from the ceiling (designed by Priscilla Locke), the restaurant seemed a lot like a thousand other restaurants, namely chain places in the suburbs. As a person who doesn’t go to church and doesn’t particularly care for contemporary Christian music, I am nonetheless all in favor of people putting on a Christian musical; as a big Darwin fan I was still a happy camper at the Creation Evidences Museum. But eating goopy chicken salad on a limp croissant at a refried Outback Steakhouse was too depressing. Here all these people have come to escape the Metroplex, but can the Metroplex be far behind?
The late spring evenings of this year’s first performances were lovely ones at the Texas Amphitheater. Soft breezes cut across the hillside as the sky blushed, the animal actors bleated, and ordinary Texans transformed themselves into citizens of the ancient Near East. Harlos Bohannan, a 76-year-old hairdresser from the tiny town of Walnut Springs, complained about having to wear uncomfortable headgear as part of his Nicodemus costume. David Culp, the Granbury school maintenance worker who plays Herod, spoke of the pleasures of contributing to a group effort. Satan was in the makeup trailer; Jesus was in the green room. A 15-year-old boy wearing makeup and a knee-length tunic winked at me.
Every evening at 8:15, fifteen minutes before curtain, the full cast meets for last-minute instructions and prayer–a flock of tulle and burlap and polyester, of dusty rose shifts and gold-embroidered cloaks, rope sandals, silver breastplates and frayed headdresses. The prayer might be led by Humphrey or by Jim Horton, who leads the production’s team of “prayer partners”–a dozen or so people in turquoise golf shirts with “COUNSELOR” printed on the back, who station themselves around the audience during the show, praying for the cast and making themselves available to audience members who wish to be counseled.
Opening night of The Promise never draws a huge crowd, they tell me. School hasn’t yet let out, and the summer tour season starts later in the month. About 800 or so people show up the first Friday, mostly older folks and families, in ball caps and windbreakers and sneakers. They applaud not only at the ends of songs but at important moments for Jesus–when he drives back Satan, when he heals the little dead girl, when he raises Lazarus–as if they were the trickier moves of a figure skater. This, according to the people who run The Promise, is what the show is all about: making Jesus’ life and deeds immediate to the audience. “Our traditions have tended to isolate us from the Jesus figure, as a divinity who is distant or remote,” says David Sanders, CEO of Promise Productions. “I believe and our people believe that Jesus was a real man and that he had real feelings and real emotions and experiences. You have to attribute these to Jesus if you’re going to understand who he is and what he did.” According to Humphrey, The Promise is part of a larger trend: More and more churches are incorporating theatrical elements into their services. “We’re at the dawn of a new revolution of worship in churches today,” he says, “with not just the same old evangelical mode of singing and preaching, the same old hymns. Now we’re seeing blended worship, small group singing, drama, dance, finding ways that everyone can worship God.”
Humphrey’s innovation has been to weave old-style musical elements into the Jesus story. An example is “Peter’s Song,” which the disciple Peter sings after Jesus bids farewell to him and the other disciples. He comes out on stage alone, at night, the moat glimmering in the artificial moonlight, and sings what is essentially a love ballad, strongly reminiscent of songs from old musicals-only with “I remember the first time I saw Jesus,” substituted for “I just met a girl named Maria.” Of course, the adhering to musical convention can only go so far. (There is not, for example, a scene of Jesus singing “I Feel Pretty.”) By the end of the song, Peter is bemoaning Christ’s departure, and the dark sequence leading to the crucifixion is at hand.
The passion play has long roots. In England during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, goldsmiths and tailors and shearers and other craftsmen would stage mystery cycles–a series of short plays taken from the Bible–honoring the guilds and the city. The groups of plays for which written versions have survived are known by city of origin: the York Cycle, the Wakefield Cycle, the Coventry Cycle. They would include plays representing Christ’s passion: his suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection; they were performed on large wooden carts, at a number of stations within the city.
The Promise seems a far cry from short plays on carts, but in the end, not so far. On the sunny morning after the show’s season premiere, the annual Somervell County March for Jesus paraded through Glen Rose. Allen Conley, who plays Peter in The Promise, shared the back of a pickup truck with two large loudspeakers, driving ahead of a crowd of about 70 marchers holding balloons and flags, and another few seniors sitting in chairs on the back of a car-drawn trailer. They strolled past the antique shops and hotels of the downtown square, as a catchy funk beat and guitar played in the background, and Conley directed the singing: Hail, Jesus you are my king… Your life leads me to sing. I’ll praise you all our days… Perfect in all your ways….
A cheerful group, on a gorgeous day. I was tempted to join them, but instead I let them pass, returned to my car, and drove back to Austin.