Reisterstown church uses theater to drum up renovation funds
St. Luke’s United Methodist Church hopes Church Folks will uplift congregation as well
Published: September 28, 2011
Another Tuesday night rehearsal and it’s raining on St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Reisterstown. “It’s a little muddy,” Raleigh Gillyard says, leading a reporter through the unpaved parking lot, past the crumbling foundation of the 131-year-old frame building and through a side door.
A half-hour past the official start time, a few older ladies are sitting in the front pews going over their lines. “Let’s go back and do that again,” one says. Another (projecting): “That man is something else.”
The room is lovely, about 30 by 40 feet with soaring ceilings unmarred by balconies or a choir loft; the windows lining each side are squares of stained glass above dark paneled wainscoting and trim. Behind the pulpit is a fair-sized pipe organ. It looks like the kind of place you might find on a New England village square. But the church was built by former slaves to serve themselves and their families. And it needs work.
Hence the play Church Folks by North Carolina author and Christian bookstore owner Pamela R. Smith, showing Oct. 1 as a $35-a-seat dinner theater event (see rumcweb.org for details). Gillyard is the producer and co-writer, and he has gathered 23 actors from across the city in a bid to uplift the congregation, raise money, and—he hopes—spark a multidate run.
“We’re almost sold out for the first showing,” Gillyard says on Sept. 9, three weeks before the premiere.
Now something of a standard among church productions, Church Folks follows “patient Pastor Perry” as he tries to guide the members of his flock, with names like Gloria Gossiper, Nosey Natalie, and Know-it-All Kevin (changed to Kia for this production when the actor playing Kevin dropped out), through their foibles and toward a more solid relationship with God. Proceeds from the show will help fund the addition of restrooms to the historic church, which has never had them.
“The church was established back in 1850—it was not really a church but was only a prayer gathering for the slaves that resided in Reisterstown,” says Jacob Smith, a longtime church member and the congregation’s unofficial historian.
The slaves had been burying their dead in a small plot next-door since 1834, Smith says. They held prayer meetings in a schoolhouse from 1850 until 1880, when they built this 30-by-30-foot church with a steeple in front. “It was dedicated as St. Luke’s United Methodist Church,” Smith says, “and from then on St. Luke’s has been there.”
There have been small additions over the years, including heat and air conditioning—but no plumbing.
Gillyard leads a visitor next door to a 100-year-old former Oddfellows hall that the church acquired in 1945, where the kids are gearing up to rehearse their dance sequence. “This is where we have to go to the bathroom,” Gillyard says as we walk up, holding an umbrella over neither of us.
Sided with tarpaper, the remnants of a blue tarp stuck to its roof, this building is overdue for demolition, Gillyard says—part of a larger plan long in the making.
“When I came in the church had a plan to build—it was very ambitious,” says Gladman Kapfumvuti, St. Luke’s pastor for the past 18 months. “It was about a $3 million project. I decided to look to our ability to raise $3 million, [and] we decided to build in phases. Phase one is the bathrooms. We have the funds to do that—about $100,000 to $150,000.”
The church has had recent turmoil. Three years ago its longtime pastor went to another church, taking some congregants with him. His replacement lasted about a year, and then Kapfumvuti came in from a church in Washington, D.C., “and one of my responsibilities was to try to bring healing,” he says, sitting in the back row and listening to the rehearsal, now in full swing with more than 20 actors.
“Repeat,” director Sherrie Webb commands. “Gotta get that out your mouth. I need loudness, I need diction, I need all that good stuff so I can understand what’s being said.”
Webb, tall with upswept hair, owns and operates KidStage Maryland, a for-profit acting-school franchise with workshops in the Hamilton Arts Collective. She’s leading the group through a slapstick bit Gillyard added to the script. Two characters, Jed and Ted, have come to church with only a dollar between them, so when they learn there will be two separate collections, they decide to reach into the plate to make change so they’ll have something to put in on the second pass.
“So I put in the first six scenes and we added a little comedy to the show,” Gillyard says. “These days, people want to laugh.”
Later Jed and Ted will lead the congregation in a rousing rendition of “Chicken Wings,” a song by “gospel comedian” Kenny Lackey that Gillyard says he heard through an e-mail chain and added to the script. “It fits the message,” Gillyard says. “You’d be on time if your pastor served chicken wings. If you’re Christian, by the way you project yourself, people should know there’s something different about you.”
Webb: “You gotta remember your body. Come out a little bit when he talks to you.” The cast breaks into “Chicken Wings,” led by a vamping Ted and Ray: “I believe you’d come to church on time for some chicken waaangs . . .”
Kapfumvuti (worriedly, to the reporter): “That’s not the message of the play.”
As the rehearsal winds down, Webb pep-talks the cast. “What you bring to practice you materialize in the show,” she says. “If you don’t bring it in practice, nine times out of 10 it’s not happening in the show. So you have to bring it. It’s OK if you don’t bring it 110 percent in every rehearsal, but at least give 100 percent, so you know how that feels, and let us see that.”
In the back of the church, Gillyard has a three-ring binder spread on his lap and his phone out, trying to schedule more performance dates. The nearby Reisterstown United Methodist Church, which has a banquet hall with enough room for the stage (and restrooms) St. Luke’s lacks, offered up a Sunday slot, but it was in the evening, so Gillyard didn’t think it would work. Too late an end time for an audience likely to have to work the next morning. They came back with a matinee time for the following Saturday, which Gillyard liked, but that weekend his caterer was otherwise engaged. Then there’s the cast. With 25-plus volunteers to wrangle, that’s something to consider too. There’s a proposal on the table for a show on Oct. 29, but Gillyard wants to put on performances before that. “When you got something hot,” he says, “you don’t want to make them wait a month.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.