'The Message of Easter': After 40 years, drama's impact spans generations
By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector
Sunday, April 14, 2019
FARM LIFE — Watching the cars lining up at the entrance, it's hard to imagine that, in the 1970s, this was farmland along a stretch of rural road in Martin County, 8 miles from the nearest town.
But the truth is, not much has changed, except for the kind of seeds that are planted here.
Since a Christian outdoor drama sprang up on this site, what once was a cornfield has grown into a mission field for Piney Grove Baptist Church. Four decades later, “The Message of Easter” yields a harvest each spring as thousands of people come to watch the narrated depiction of the life of Jesus.
Church vans, tour buses and families bringing picnics arrive early to find a seat. Some have traveled for hours to come to see the portrayal of the New Testament account of the days leading up to Jesus' crucifixion, his death and resurrection.
“To me it's one of the highlights of this time of year,” cast member Steven Manning said. “We get the privilege of just staying where we are and people coming to us to sit and listen and watch who Jesus is and look at his life.”
There were no seats back in 1979, the year the drama was staged in S.E. and Nancy Manning's front yard. There really was not a set to speak of either, just plywood backdrops covered in curtains. But the late E.T. Taylor, who created the drama and directed it for nearly 30 years, envisioned much more.
“He had a gift for theatrics,” said Sarah Stalls, who followed Taylor’s wife, Linda, as director five years ago. “He was just an extremely talented, fearless individual.”
Taylor, who had experience in theater, had helped to establish “The Christmas Story” as an outdoor drama at nearby Macedonia Christian Church.
“E.T. had this whole vision; he had this planned,” Stalls said. “When we were kids, we jokingly called him Noah because he was willing to go out on that limb. He built his ark right here.”
In the beginning, materials were scarce. Women in the church sewed costumes by hand, using material from old bedspreads and curtains.
Nancy Manning recalls the church having to borrow wooden bleachers for the premiere. When there weren't enough seats to accommodate the crowd, she and her children went inside and brought out quilts for folks to sit on.
By the next year, the Mannings had given the church use of a field next to their home to create a permanent outdoor theater, which was named in honor of the late S.E. Manning. The only stipulation was that the drama would always be free.
It is a promise that Piney Grove has kept, never charging for admission or parking or even accepting donations, opting instead to finance the production through an annual fall bazaar.
“The church, in the beginning, could not afford to finance it. It was expensive,” Nancy recalled. “We had to buy bleachers and all kinds of sound equipment and wood to build the sets.
“We have seen so many miracles,” she said. “We needed a road, and we had a man who built it for us. The rocks up at the cross, we needed those, and somebody called E.T and offered them. The things we need, we don't even have to worry about it. It comes. ... We saw it just come up from nothing.”
Stalls grew up in the drama, playing a part from its second year. Her father, John Hodges, was parking crew chief.
“We'd all sit on the front steps, and the ladies would yell 'Bus!' and we'd run out to see where the buses were from,” she said, laughing. “Every night was a big excitement.
“As a kid it was the neatest thing to be a part of it. It was not unusual to have 2,000 people a night. For us, to think these people are coming to Farm Life … that was pretty amazing.”
Candi Griffin Manning was born the same year the outdoor theater was opened. She and her brother, Joey Griffin, who now plays Pontius Pilate, had their first roles as children who shouted “Jesus is coming” as cast member Jimmy Griffin rode in on a donkey.
Today, Candi and Steven Manning's children, Berkley, Meredith and Elizabeth, have inherited those roles.
“It's a huge privilege to know my children can be a part of it,” Candi said. “You get to see the gospel in living color and experience the gospel. That's been a wonderful tool for us as parents to teach our kids that this is really what it's all about.”
For children, the drama can seem all too real. They shudder at the sound of the whips and cringe at the sight of the red lashes on Jesus' back. Bobby Stalls, who portrays a Roman soldier, recalls once being kicked in the shin by a little boy in the audience in retaliation for how the soldiers had treated Jesus.
Gene Hollowell of Gates County remembers seeing the drama in 1991, the night before Palm Sunday. Though he had grown up attending church and had heard these stories for years in Sunday school, watching the play gave him a deeper understanding.
“The dramatization made the years of messages come alive in a way they never had before,” he wrote in a tribute on social media. “(I'm) getting choked up right now thinking about the scene with no dialogue, no narration, no music, just the noise of the hammer and nails off in the distance.”
The Rev. Larry Stephens had no idea when he joined Piney Grove as pastor six years ago that the drama had such a broad reach. Just last month, a man at a men's conference who saw the church's name on Stephens' name tag told him that the drama played a role in his granddaughter becoming a Christian.
“Of course, we don't see every seed that's planted and the fruit from that,” Stephens said. “But with thousands of people that come through, we can be sure that there are God moments that we don't know about where people are coming to faith.”
Jimmy Griffin, who has portrayed Jesus throughout the history of “The Message of Easter,” said that Piney Grove has received cards and letters of appreciation from people who have written to tell the church how the drama had been a blessing in their lives. But he said that is more of a reflection on the message than the messengers.
“This is not about Piney Grove,” he said. “This is about Jesus, and that's what we're hoping we're directing people to see.”
A few years ago, Griffin wondered if it might be time for people to see someone else in the role of Jesus. After never missing a single season — even coming back to play the part when he and his wife, Deborah, were living out of state — Griffin was ready to retire. But then a conversation with an audience member changed his mind.
“He said, 'I've been coming to this thing for 25 years,'” Griffin recalled. “He said, 'You've got a tremendous witness here and a great ministry, and as long as you've got your health, you need to keep doing this.'”
Like Griffin, Leslie Hardison, who portrays Peter, has never missed a performance. Still, in the course of four decades, the drama has lost some of its original cast, including Taylor, who died in 2006. The church retired his costume, which is displayed in a glass case in the activity center.
“We hung it up when he died,” Nancy Manning said. “He was that good.
“He had a way of getting people to do things,” she said. “We have old men who you wouldn't think would ever put a dress on who would put those costumes (robes) on.”
Nancy, who portrayed Mary, the mother of Jesus, for 25 years, still puts on a costume today at age 83.
“It is the joy of my life,” she said. “It has been my life ever since we started.
“It is just a miracle because people like us, just dumb hicks, that can go out there and put on a show,” she said. “People don't hear our accents and don't see that we're not actors. Actually if we were actors we'd be too 'professional.' We'd probably put on too (much), ham it up.”
Stephens believes the simplicity of the drama and its faithfulness to the biblical account is what gives it its staying power.
“A lady called one day and said, 'I wonder if I can get your script?'” he said. “I said, ‘You can have our script. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that's our script.’
“The longevity of it is that it's the gospel laid out every night.”
“It's a God thing,” she said. “We're just willing and listening, and once we saw we could do it we believed we could keep doing it. But that's all the credit we can take, was being willing and in the right place.”
Contact Kim Grizzard at firstname.lastname@example.org and 329-9578.
WANT TO GO?
Piney Grove Baptist Church, 2925 Piney Grove Church Road, Williamston, will present “The Message of Easter” at 8 p.m. today and Thursday through April 21. The 90-minute outdoor drama tells the story of Jesus. There is no admission charge. Visit messageofeaster.org or call 792-2954.