O R O N T O
The living word of the Gospel of John
BY MICHAEL SWAN
The Catholic Register
Friday, March 04, 2005
Think of a drama full of conflict between forces of darkness
and light, between established authorities and a young renegade,
between an occupying army and the occupied nation, between the
liberty of love, forgiveness and reconciliation and the constraints
of power, authority and the law. This vast, interlocking machinery
of conflict carries Brad Sherrill and his audience through two-and-a-half
hours of the most stripped bare, honest and elementary theatre
imaginable as the actor presents The Gospel of John.
From the beginnings of theatre in the English language —
medieval chancel dramas presented before the altars of gothic
cathedrals — Gospels have always been the wellspring of
English drama. Sherrill knows it’s great theatre, but can’t
think of it as just a play.
“I don’t look at this as a performance. I have performance
skills that God has given me, but I really look at this as a proclamation,”
Sherrill told The Catholic Register during a Toronto visit to
perform his play.
The trouble with churchy words like “proclamation”
is that it puts what Sherrill does in a straightjacket. Sherrill’s
proclamation is nothing like the average Sunday morning Scripture
reading. From a simple stage with a desk, a chair, a lamp, a stool,
a jug of water and a basin, Sherrill uses the 20,000 words of
the fourth Gospel to connect imaginations with Christ.
“My prayer is that each time this (Gospel) is released
into the world, whether it’s me saying it or somebody else
saying it in our churches, that we get that, and we can become
more Christ-like by becoming more forgiving and more merciful
and more loving,” said Sherrill.
Sherrill prays twice each evening as he performs The Gospel of
John. He prays while sitting anonymously in the audience, and
then again as soon as he takes the stage in a voice pitched below
the audience’s ability to pick out words. Then, from the
moment he looks up and addresses his audience, the words are not
“The thing I hear the most is, ‘You bring the Gospel
to life.’ My answer is, ‘It is alive. I’m trying
to let that life live through me,’ ” said Sherrill.
Part of the reason it works is that people aren’t used
to confronting the whole Gospel, all at once, as a single entity.
Most Christians either study the Bible as a series of discrete
passages each with its own source, literary form and intended
audience, or they take in the selected readings for liturgies.
“To be able to sit and hear a whole Gospel, the structure
of it and the power of it, really builds and builds for us,”
Sherrill has done The Gospel of John in New York’s historic
Lamb’s Theatre, and theatres in Washington and Atlanta.
He’s had positive reviews from the Atlanta Journal Constitution
and the Washington Post, and a lukewarm notice from the New York
Times who praised Sherrill’s acting but quibbled with the
Over the last four years, the performance has also taken him
to churches and schools throughout the United States. The Atlanta-based
actor, who is artistic associate with the Georgia Shakespeare
Festival, never thought he would be touring with a Gospel.
“I was called to learn the Gospel as a Christian, to deepen
my relationship with Christ,” he said. “That’s
why. God asked me, Brad — and I ignored this call for a
while. But it would not leave my mind or my heart that this is
what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to go
out on my front porch and devote the time to take these words
inside of me as a way of deepening my relationship. God was saying,
‘I’ve given you these gifts as an actor. You’re
used to memorizing things. Come closer to me by memorizing this.’
He thought he would perform the Gospel once at his First United
Methodist church in Atlanta.
“I surrendered the work to His will and His glory.”
A statement like that may sound as phony, trite and calculating
as anything launched by the worst of televangelists, but there’s
nothing hokey about Sherrill’s honest presentation of the
text on stage. Nor is Sherrill a naive, Bible-belt evangelist
using his fantastic memory to pound the Bible into unbelievers.
“I was certainly aware that the Gospel has been used throughout
time to persecute women, Jews, blacks, you name it. You’re
always aware of this. You just pray that the Spirit will speak
to people in a clear way,” said Sherrill.
Sherrill struggled with the anti-Jewish slant of John’s
version of the passion, but concluded he had to entrust the interpretation
of the words in their historical and literary context to his audience.
His job is limited to presenting the words as drama.
“Even though there’s great conflict between religious
authorities who happen to be Jewish, and a man who happens to
be Jewish — even though there’s great conflict —
the overriding message of that Gospel is eternal salvation and
Sherrill has made no decisions about how long he will continue
to tour with The Gospel of John.
“My actor friends have said, ‘Aren’t you tired
of doing that yet?’ I say, ‘No.’ This isn’t
like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This isn’t like As You Like
It, or other great plays that I’ve been in,” he said.
“This to me is a living word. It is alive. Therefore it
is a constantly evolving thing within myself, within a lot of
people who hear it.”
The whispered prayer Sherrill makes at the beginning of each
show reflects his conviction about the words he has memorized,
“that this text tonight will be glorifying to God, and that
the Word may make new wine skins of us every time we hear it.”
The Gospel of John plays at the Walmer Centre Theatre, 188 Lowther
St., a block north of the Spadina subway stop, Tuesdays, Thursdays,
Fridays and twice on Saturdays until March 27. Ticket information
can be found at http://www.brookstonetheatre.com.