About the Play
Cotton Patch Gospel premiered at the Lamb's Theater in New York City on October 21, 1981. Written by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, and with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin, Cotton Patch Gospel adapted Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch" versions of the gospels of Matthew and John for the stage. Though less widely known than the other gospel musicals of its era (Godspell and Jesus Christ, Superstar), Cotton Patch Gospel is an underappreciated gem of musical theater.
Between 1968 and 1973, Dr. Clarence Jordan, a Southern Baptist minister, published four books where he translated the New Testament into colloquial Southern language. These "Cotton Patch" versions were brought to the attention of Tom Key, an Atlanta actor and playwright, when he was contemplating a play that would transplant the story of Jesus into the mid-20th century American South. Jordan's versions already featured the Southern-ized Christ that Key was thinking of. Jesus Davidson was born in the town of Gainesville, Georgia, and was laid in an apple crate. He was baptized in the Chattahoochee River, he preached to a crowd of thousands on Stone Mountain, and he met his end in Atlanta. Key built upon Jordan's work, making additions and changes such as the decision to have Jesus lynched rather than crucified.
With Jordan's versions as his source material, Key, together with Russell Treyz, wrote the book for the stage play. The music for the production was written and composed by the legendary Harry Chapin, in what would eventually prove to be his final musical work. In all, Chapin produced 26 songs for the show, many of them in a bluegrass style befitting the play's setting. Chapin finished his contribution in June 1981, and was unexpectedly killed in an automobile accident on July 16, 1981.
Although originally written as a one-man show with musical accompaniment, Cotton Patch Gospel can be made to accomodate any number of actors. Licensing for productions is available exclusively through the Dramatic Publishing Company. Tom Key continues to perform the show every few years, most recently with his own theater company, the Theatrical Outfit in downtown Atlanta. A filmed 1988 production, starring Key, is out-of-print but is available for streaming, and the original cast soundtrack is available on digital and CD.
Given the amount of public familiarity with Cotton Patch Gospel, and in particular its limited recognition online, it is the goal and hope of this website to spread and encourage awareness and appreciation of the show.