By Susan Shinn Turner
What an exciting experience St. John’s vocal ensemble members had in October, joining with the Piedmont Players Theatre and Landesbuhnen Sachsen in the American premiere of “In God’s Own Country.”
The play follows Henry Muhlenberg’s struggle to establish the Lutheran Church in America. Set during the start of the French and Indian War, the play presents a time of great challenge, yet great hope. Pastors weren’t so enthusiastic about turning over their congregations to Muhlenberg, yet he had a clear charge from Germany to unify the church here.
“In God’s Own Country” featured a clever set, where a set of benches functioned as, well, benches, but also served as a boat, a table, a wall — even a printing press. Much of the first act was presented in German, but as Muhlenberg became more familiar with his new country, the story, too, became clearer as more English was spoken.
Randy Overcash, who sang in the choir, agrees.
“After reading the script before the production began, I was somewhat concerned about all the dialogue that was still in German,” he notes. “But as the show progressed, I was amazed at how the quality of acting helped overcome that. Even though I was in a location that prevented me from seeing much of the action, I still found I could follow the storyline better than I would have ever believed initially.
“The other thing I thoroughly enjoyed was the musical background provided by Ensemble Nobiles. I’ve told several people that their contribution alone was worth the price of admission.”
The Ensemble Nobiles, a group of five singers from the renowned St. Thomas Kirche in Leipzig, led worship at St. John’s on Oct. 8. They also performed several songs at the opening-night reception on Oct. 12, to the delight of the crowd.
“The singers of Ensemble Nobiles and especially composer Paul Heller were impressed with the quality of the choir and the great job Rob Durocher did in preparing them,” says Jane Taubert, a Rowan County native who led Landesbuhnen Sachsen.
“In comparison to some of the choirs we had worked with before, the St. John’s Choir was particularly good with holding the intonation throughout the songs (not letting the pitch sag any), which is very important since almost all pieces are performed a cappella. Although learning the German lyrics to some of the pieces may have been a great challenge for the singers, they all mastered the task beautifully.
“The entire cast was impressed with the professionalism of the chorus and greatly appreciates the warmth and hospitality with which they were received. It’s been fun for all involved.”
Frank and Diane Goodnight have supported PPT for 35 years, sponsoring 15 plays over the years through their business, Diversified Graphics.
“We learned some new and rather interesting warm-up exercises from our German music director, Paul,” Diane says. “I’m glad there were no cameras around to capture our most unattractive facial contortions and hopping around during these nightly warm-ups — please don’t tell me there were!”
“As a relatively new Lutheran, it has been intriguing to learn more about the formation of our church in America,” Frank adds. “The pace of practice and performing has been grueling but the choir members have kept it light so it has been a hoot to participate.”
Carol Everhart agrees.
“Though time consuming, being a part of this play has been a wonderful experience,” she says. “Not only has it been fun being with my fellow choir members, but it has been great getting to know and working with the phenomenal members of the Ensemble Nobiles. I have also learned so much about this period in history, and especially Muhlenberg. This has definitely been a once-in-a-lifetime experience!”
Dennis and Karen Rogers, both members of the Chancel Choir, also served in the show’s choir.
“Although it has required a lot of time and effort learning to sing German and knowing our places and our timely stage entrance moments, the experience and the pleasure of being around such talented performers have been moments in time Karen and I will treasure and never forget,” Dennis says. “We have acquired a new appreciation of what it takes to bring together such a production with all the behind-the-scenes preparation that has to take place not only months and years before the actual performances, but also the behind-the-scenes activity each night of the play.
“Our new German friends are fantastic people with many life stories shared. They appreciate so much the hospitality we have shared with them including the very simple moments of introducing them to sweet tea and Cheerwine. For some of them, this is their first experience visiting America — and to think it took place right here in little old Salisbury.”
“It’s been a fun and stimulating history lesson with plenty of material to prompt comparison to current affairs,” Missy Shives says. “Also, I’ve loved working with the German singers and actors.”
“Lotta time, lotta work, but a lotta fun, too,” David Hord adds. “The play has kindled my interest in the incredible challenges our forebears faced in coming to Amercia, especially as they struggled to form the church. What an amazing legacy.”