The idea of writing a show about Jesus would no doubt make anyone a bit hesitant. But for Jeremiah Gamble, the more he dug into the material and the more he immersed himself in the infamous passion story of Jesus’ final days, the more he knew this was a show he needed to write.
From Mel Gibson’s portrayal to the many Easter tales, most people are familiar with the story of Judas and his betrayal. But in “Kingdom Undone,” that story is given a breath of fresh air, a new perspective and a story for believers and non-believers alike.
Gamble said he was inspired and energized to put this production together and bring it to Minneapolis’ Southern Theater, where it’s already moving its share of critics and audiences.
Gamble took some time out of his busy schedule (he stars as Jesus in the show) to tell us a little more about his vision for this production and what it’s been like to play such an intimidating role.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Kingdom Undone.
A: Kingdom Undone is a new play about justice and vengeance with a compelling twist on the last days of Judas and Jesus. When revolution spins out of control, Judas Iscariot and a young Zealot named Isaac rush toward their ultimate liberation, or their undoing. Kingdom Undone merges earthy drama, music and unexpected humor with the passion of Jesus’ final days and the messy justice that turned the world on its head.
Q: When did you start writing this show and why were you compelled to do so?
A: I’ve been writing redemptive plays and retelling biblical stories for over 15 years, however, I’ve never written a show with Jesus as one of the characters. That’s an intimidating task, as a writer, to put Jesus onstage. But it’s also equally intriguing. So, about five years ago I started wondering about writing a “Jesus show.” I dug into the history books, pored over commentaries, watched a ton of “Jesus movies” and read the Gospels over and over and over to till the creative soil. I was inspired by what I found and felt challenged and energized by the prospect of taking on the passion account.
Q: Like you said, tackling a story about Jesus can be a daunting task. What was your approach?
A: It seems to me that with the retelling of the Jesus story you often get one of two variations — you have non-Christians emphasizing Jesus’ humanity and Christians emphasizing his divinity. Often non-Christian audiences dismiss stories that emphasize Jesus’ divinity and write them off as religious propaganda, while Christians write off “secular” narratives as blasphemy at worst, offense at best. I wanted to embrace that tension and present the story in such a way as to invite both sides to the table, to consider the part of Jesus they like to de-emphasize or omit, and perhaps see something they haven’t seen before.
Q: What is it like for you to see your words come to life on stage in this production?
A: It’s, honestly, everything I hoped it would be — the theatrical aesthetic, the cohesiveness and artistry of the design elements, the commitment to quality, the delightful way each actor embodies their character, the close-knit community of the ensemble … I’ve just been trying to soak it all in.
Q: Tell us about the cast in this show.
A: Well … it’s big! This show has a cast of 16 actors and four musicians. We are thrilled with the talent level, commitment and dedication of the cast. Many of our performers have worked with stand-out theater companies around town: Children’s Theater Company, The Illusion, The Jungle and Theater Latté Da (to name a few).
Q: You play Jesus in the show and I’d imagine it takes quite a bit of energy to pour so much emotion into each performance. What has playing this role been like for you?
A: It’s been an incredible journey. It’s a daunting role to step into. As an actor, I want to feel connected to a character — to get inside their head and feel what they feel. I wasn’t sure how consistently connected I would feel playing Jesus, but I’ve found connecting to the role surprisingly simple — not easy, simple. For me the key has been being present to people — really listening, seeing the worth in people (even if it’s a character who opposes me) and trying to bring the best out of them. I try to see and hear through a lens/grid of compassion and a heart that’s for people.
Q: It’s a familiar story for a lot of people, but how were you able to put a new, or perhaps, fresh spin on it?
A: Often times we get a wide-angle view of this story, but I wanted to take more of a close up look — focusing on the relationships, struggles and inner motivations of the characters. Judas is the central character, and I think audiences will see a Judas they’re not used to seeing — charismatic, ambitious, idealistic, good-intentioned and smart. The dialogue has a very contemporary feel, giving the audience the sense that these are “normal people” that talk very much like they do. For a passion account, it’s unexpectedly seasoned with quite a bit of humor, often found in the pettiness and bickerings of Jesus’ followers.
Q: What was the process like in creating the music for this show?
A: I originally envisioned this show as musical theater. After writing the first draft of the script, my wife, Vanessa and I wrote 11 songs and workshopped them for Nautilus Music Theater’s Rough Cuts Series. The music wasn’t meshing with the script and I came to the realization that I needed to throw out the music and re-write the script. After the re-write was complete we did a reading and it was universally felt that the show didn’t need to be a musical — the dramatic content was largely all there. However, music still plays a big part in this production. Although more to emphasize emotion and heighten moments, much in the way music is used to underscore movies. There are plenty of songs where the characters sing, but they sing because music is a natural part of the moment — singing a prayer, celebrating during the triumphal entry, etc. The songs don’t reveal hidden thoughts and drive the action forward like a traditional musical. The new songs were workshopped with Nautilus Music Theater this past winter, and this time they felt organically linked to the story.
Q: How have audiences responded so far?
A: We’ve been really pleased by the audience and critical response to the show. People have been genuinely appreciative of, and surprised by, the humor. They seem challenged by the unique look at Judas. They love the “beautiful music,” the humanity of the characters and the excellent artistry of the piece.
Q: What do you hope people walk away with after seeing this production?
A: Great art provokes questions, challenges presumptions and causes people to see things in a new light — I think this story, told well, can do that.
“Kingdom Undone” is playing now at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. Tickets are between $20 and $25. For tickets, more information or to watch the trailer, check out the show’s website.