During his portrayal of Lucifer, Jake Barnett employed "fire palms" to make it appear as though he held fire in his hands. (Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Over the past eight days, visitors to the Appalachian Fairgrounds have been treated to a spectacle of fire, smoke, swords and blood.
It wasn’t during a screening of the latest installment in “The Hobbit” film series, nor was it at a rock or heavy metal concert. Rather, all these things were on display during a local church’s depiction of the life and death of Jesus Christ.
This year, members of Strong Tower Baptist Church took an extra weekend to hold their Easter drama, “Just One Drop,” which features sword-fighting angels, a flame-wielding Satan and the bloody flogging of Jesus.
While the story is derived from the Bible, every detail of the production — the blocking, fight choreography, props, and special effects — is handled by members of the church. One of the show’s directors, Shanna Presnell, said the goal of the elaborate pageantry is not to show off the talents of the congregation, though.
“Our purpose in the whole thing is not to get up there and show what happens,” Presnell said. “I tell our cast this every time we meet with them — when the curtain opens, it’s like we’re opening the Bible.”
Though the Bible opens with the story of Genesis, the Strong Tower production begins with the story of Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven, as written in the book of Revelation. In the opening scene, Lucifer — as played by Jake Barnett, who also serves as one of the show’s directors — hovers above the stage before landing to explain the biblical notion of creation. While Barnett himself is not floating during the scene, a wire keeps him suspended in the air before a mechanical winch attached to the ceiling lowers him to the stage floor.
After Barnett describes creation, he, as Lucifer, explains why Lucifer chose to rebel against God and the forces of heaven. Barnett said that explanation may set the Strong Tower production apart from other churches’ Easter dramas.
“Everybody says, ‘Well, the devil is just mean,’ ” Barnett said. “We try to look into why he is that way (and) why he fell from heaven.”
In examining Lucifer’s motivation, Barnett said that while he has not developed any sympathy for the devil, he has enjoyed playing him on stage.
“I’ve tried to dig into the part,” Barnett said. “It is fun acting like that.”
Barnett added he also has fun during the production’s first climactic moment, when after explaining the reason behind his distaste for humanity, Lucifer engages in a sword fight with archangels Gabriel and Michael.
“About six years ago, we started doing this scene,” Barnett said. “We’ve got actual iron swords that weigh about 15 or 20 pounds apiece. Sometimes we can get them to throw some sparks off.”
Though the actors can’t rely on sparks to fly, they can control the fight itself. Barnett and the actors choreograph the scene themselves, but at times, that can prove hazardous.
“Last week, one of them slipped by accident and I got hit in the head,” he said. “But it all went well.”
While Barnett may not have appreciated the blow to the head, members of the audience didn’t mind seeing an angel hit the devil on the head with a sword.
“That may have been the only time I’ve ever gotten applause,” he said.
After Lucifer is cast out from heaven, the story turns to Christ. After his birth, the play moves from Jesus’ birth to his adulthood, and depicts several of the miracles he is written to have performed.
“There’s the marketplace ... where Jesus comes to town and does the healing,” Presnell said. “The second scene involves a lame man, a leper, (and) a dead girl. We just include a bunch of healings in that one scene.”
For the miracle scenes, more than 30 actors gathered on stage to show astonishment as Jesus, played by Strong Tower Pastor Ancel Presnell, healed the sick and revived the dead.
Ancel Presnell has played the role of Christ for seven years, three of those years at Strong Tower. In comparison with his experience in Easter productions with other churches, Ancel Presnell said the scale of the Strong Tower production can be daunting.
“It was a little more difficult, in some ways, here,” Ancel Presnell said. “Here we have to bring the stage in and engineer our props. It’s a little more difficult, but, in some ways, it makes it better.”
In addition to the production itself being somewhat difficult, Ancel Presnell said that despite playing the role of Jesus for the better part of a decade, sometimes emotion can still get the better of him.
“If you see me crying in the drama, those aren’t fake tears,” Ancel Presnell said. “Often, I get overcome in the scene itself. That is just very, very humbling thing to do.”
While some parts can be humbling, others, like Barnett’s, can be flashy. As the production continues, Lucifer is seen scheming against Christ from hell. A smoke machine and torches help set the scene, but that scene is made — for the directors, at least — when Lucifer reaches into the fire and holds it in his hands.
“He actually holds the fire in his hands,” Shanna Presnell said. “It’s pretty neat.”
In his hands, Barnett wears what he referred to as “fire palms,” which are small metal boxes containing cotton. Before going on stage, Barnett soaks the cotton in lighter fluid. Then, on stage, after waving his hand through an open flame, he brings his hands together to catch both boxes on fire. From the audience’s perspective, Barnett, or Lucifer, holds the flames in the palms of his hands.
While Lucifer’s pyromancing holds visual appeal, the directors said the betrayal and subsequent torture of Jesus leading to his crucifixion receives the most noticeable reaction from the audience. That reaction might be, in part, because the production uses make-up and special effects to simulate the torment Jesus is written to have endured. Barnett said the production, though graphic, is aimed at bringing the scope of that torture to the audience.
“Everybody tries to tiptoe around what he actually went through and what he did for us,” Barnett said. “We just try to bring it to life and let people see what he did.”
One of the things the church tried to bring to life was the flogging of Christ. In the production, Jesus is tied to a whipping post and flogged by Roman soldiers. As he is whipped, audience members will see trails of blood begin to form on Ancel Presnell’s back.
“They’re whipping him with these whips we’ve made with sponge and yarn and are soaking wet,” Barnett said. “We put this blood powder on him. They’re whipping him, and every time they whip him, blood will be running.”
The whips were custom-made by Barnett and members of the church. Barnett said they ordered cat of nine tails whips, but replaced the tips with the sponge and yarn. Although no one is being hurt in the scene, some actors, like Billy Pennington, said they struggled with the idea of whipping Christ.
“’I’m one of the soldiers up there whipping,” Pennington said. “It’s hard to do, because we have to smile and laugh and stuff. It takes a lot to do that. (But) we want people to know what he did for us, and the ultimate sacrifice he made for us.”
After he is whipped, Jesus is tied to his cross and raised up for all to see. Though the actors actually lift Ancel Presnell off the ground and into the air, the cross is stabilized with two cables connected to the cross’ arms.
Even with the pulley system, however, Ancel Presnell said he was grateful for the actors who hold him aloft.
“The pulley system is more (for) looks than anything,” Ancel Presnell said. “If we depended only on the pulleys, and the arms of the cross were to break, that would hurt really bad when I fell backward.”
Although the story represents what might be the greatest tale of tragedy in the Christian religion, in regard to the production itself, Shanna Presnell said it was one of her favorite times of year.
“It gives us a sense of unity when we all come together,” Shanna Presnell said. “It’s the highlight of my year.”
Strong Tower’s final production of “Just One Drop” will occur tonight at 7 in the Farm and Home building at the Appalachian Fairgrounds.
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