1/13/2012 - Mississippi Actor Brings Bible Characters to Modern Stage
Judson College normally has a college or seminary professor to do special lectures during her annual Christian Emphasis Week, but this year the students heard from John the Baptist, St. Peter and Joseph, the father of Jesus.
These biblical heroes are among a bevy of characters in the repertoire of John Maxwell, drama professor at Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss.
Maxwell traveled for 30 years with his one-man show based on the life of Mississippi author William Faulkner before he began writing monologues and portraying biblical personalities.
"I first began to work on Paul," Maxwell said. "I'm not a theologian--I'm an actor--so I began to think about what Paul would say to a modern audience. I had the idea of his bringing together leaders from all the churches he'd visited and giving them a final exhortation before he was led off to die."
Before finishing this first monologue Maxwell, living in Seattle at the time, got an unusual invitation from a local Episcopalian rector. The pastor complained that his congregation needed "shaking up" and asked Maxwell to come on a Sunday dressed as a homeless man and preach as John the Baptist.
Maxwell said that only the pastors and the head usher knew about this event, so the congregation was shocked.
"I knew at that moment why God placed me on earth," Maxwell said. "From that day forward I've done religious monologues and try to help modern audiences hear the old stories in new ways."
Maxwell's St. Peter entered the Judson College chapel with a baseball cap and jeans to talk about his friendship with Jesus. The actor used a Southern “good ol’ boy” dialect since Peter is called "uneducated and unlearned" in the book of Acts, he explained. "I believe when you put costumes on performers and they use stilted language, there's a barrier between them and the audience," he said. "Dressing casually and using common language brings empathy from the audience to my characters."
Maxwell grew up in Pickens, Miss., the son of a cotton farmer. His mother taught him to sing and he was on stage by age five. He studied at the University of Mississippi, earning a master's degree in theatre and preparing for a stage career in New York or Los Angeles. An opportunity came to teach in a community college, so Maxwell did this for the next 12 years.
"My mother, an English teacher, gave me a copy of Faulkner's 'The Hamlet' for my birthday," he said. "I told her I really wasn't interested in Faulkner. She said, 'John, you're semi-literate and a college graduate and you need to know Faulkner!'"
It was a birthday gift that later changed the course of his life. Maxwell said he became "obsessed" with Faulkner, read his novels and published letters and decided to write a one-man show based on his life It took about five years to research and one year to write the play that premiered in 1981. "It was Faulkner who took me around the world," Maxwell said. "I've performed in 12 counties and all over the USA including one performance before former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn."
It was during his touring days that Maxwell began to think about biblical monologues and had his first experience as John the Baptist. "When people come and talk to me and tell me how inspired they are, it's worth it all," he said.
Judson sophomore Carli Ludlow from Thomasville, Ala. said she was shocked when John the Baptist walked in unannounced on Jan. 10. "I guess I've thought of biblical characters as unapproachable," she said. "But there he was talking to me. It was a new experience and very moving."
But sometimes the reactions aren't positive. "One lady criticized the church performance in Seattle because 'it wasn't printed in the program,'" Maxwell laughed. "I guess that's one of the reasons the pastor thought his church needed to be shaken a bit!" "Others have called me a blasphemer for taking liberties with the biblical record," he said. "I tell them I'm not a theologian, but an actor who loves Jesus and reads the Bible, and that it's great the world is big enough for both of us!"
Maxwell sees his work as a Christian ministry and as a tool for evangelism. "Christians enjoy the performances," he said, "but I also have in mind seekers who are still looking for faith. I want them to be interested in these characters and their quest for God. Someone called me a 'stepping stone' to the church, and I was happy with that characterization."
Maxwell was a seeker himself as a young man. Though raised in the church, he abandoned it while a college student. Later he heard about a good preacher in Jackson, the late Rev. John Claypool, and slipped into the back row of Claypool's church one Sunday. Maxwell's heart was touched, and he continued to come late and leave early so no one would detain him or talk to him, but in these times he listened to Claypool's messages.
"I'll never forget what Claypool said one Sunday," Maxwell said. "He said, 'The only unforgiveable sin is not asking for God's forgiveness.' I began to weep. I asked for forgiveness and God gave me peace."
Maxwell calls himself "a work in progress." "My prayer before every performance is 'Lord, from you to me to them.' I believe God can take what he's given me and use it to help others in their search."
More information on Maxwell may be found at mswritersandmusicians.com.
John Maxwell after his recent performance as John the Baptist at Judson College. Program participants included three Alabama students (from left): April Brown of Toxey, Miriam Hart of Tallassee and Jessca Weller of Montgomery. Photo by Bill Mathews.