Original play tells gospel story set in the 1870s South

For Christians, the narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is both timeless and timely. However, sometimes a story becomes so familiar in the retelling that details become invisible and the meaning and message become memorized rather than freshly felt. This April, the Union College Drama Program will present Jubilee Road, an original show that recontextualizes the passion play, bringing first-century Judea to the American South during the Reconstruction period.

Featuring the music of well-known Lincoln children’s musician Mike Mennard, Jubilee Road is his second collaboration with writer and director Brett Hadley, following last year’s production of Captain Scrooge.

In this retelling of the story of Jesus set in the post Civil War South, protagonist Joshua—born Joe-bob and Mary-lou, a poor couple from Hattiesburg, Miss.—translates the gospels of Matthew and John into, as Hadley put it, “the wisdom of Jesus interpreted into southern sayings and witticisms.”   

“The humor will both surprise and delight people,” said Mennard. “It may seem odd to tell the Gospel in a humorous way, but it will delight and hopefully bring people back to the original story.” He went on to say that Hadley, being from the south himself, can speak “Southern” as naturally as can be, “And it's a delight.”

Not only will Jubilee Road bring first century Judea to the 1870s south, it will carry it there with an accompanying live band and songs. Bringing the chapters of Matthew and John to the Mark Twain era south allowed Mennard and Hadley to experiment with upbeat tunes and Southern charm inspired lyrics.

“Writing the music is a fun challenge,” Mennard said. “We are trying to create music that fits the period and the play's flavor. And as with any musical, the goal of each musical number is to advance the story, not merely punctuate the story with a song.”

Hadley admits that working in the musical elements of the show have been a challenge, tieing together the actors, story and choreography. However, all the heartache is more than made up for by being able to work with Mennard. “It’s almost scary how similarly Mike and I think,” Hadley said. “We play off each other well and have a lot of fun. Musicals are usually a big draw for live theatre, and since most of the songs will be originals from Mike, they are sure to be fun and memorable.”

Union College students are also very involved in the creation of the final production, both performing and helping with everything from lighting and sound, costumes, makeup, and even constructing and painting the sets. Maddie Temple, an English major at Union, is one of the many actors in Jubilee Road.

“The play is going to be a wonderful production full of musical selections, comedy, family values, and lots of fun,” she said. Temple has had “tons of fun” practicing the upbeat songs, though learning the choreography has proven challenging. For her, the best part of this production has been the chance to get to know so many other dedicated students. “I'm pumped!” she said.

Hadley, an associate professor of communications and drama, has directed more than 20 productions, written and published numerous plays and skits as well as directed the Adventist Christian Theatre touring drama team for 24 years.

Front man for the Mighty Magic Pants, Mike Mennard has performed and recorded kids and family music for 15 years. He has released 10 family music and comedy albums including his band’s latest, My Mom is Batman, in February 2017. The author of several books, Mike also wrote two of Union’s previous play productions, That’s What Makes Them Pirates in 2010 and Captain Scrooge in 2016.

Jubilee Road will be showing the weekends of April 6-9 and April 13-16 in Woods Auditorium at Union College. General admission tickets are $6. Learn more at www.ucollege.edu/drama or follow them on Facebook.