Today, as we think about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all he stood for, it’s fitting that I'm featuring Tom Key, Executive Artistic Director of Theatrical Outfit, a company that has its home at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, the first restaurant in Atlanta to voluntarily desegregate in the 1960s. From a new work dealing with desegregation called Waiting to Be Invited to Mahalia, a musical about gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Theatrical Outfit (www.theatricaloutfit.org) tells stories that stir the soul—plays about community, spirituality, and racial understanding.
At the helm of Theatrical Outfit is Tom Key. As a solo performer, Key has been in demand across North America for three decades. He is well known as the actor and creator of the off-Broadway musical hit Cotton Patch Gospel. He has been featured in the award-winning television series In the Heat of the Night and I’ll Fly Away, as well as the Mirimax Family Films Gordy and The Adventures of Ociee Nash.
LeAnne: Two weeks ago, I posted some of my favorite quotes from Madeleine L'Engle's book, Walking on Water. One of those dealt with the danger of calling work created by people who don't believe in Christ "nonChristian" art. Do you think that God can use art by nonChristians?
Tom: When we see a great painting, hear a piece of music, see a play, or read literature, we are in the presence of a gift—of something extraordinary. If the artist is about capturing the truth, revealing truth, I believe Christ shows up in the work because He is truth, regardless of the intention of the artist. I think it’s important to recognize the gift and that the Giver of the gift loves the artist. Even if the artist is not a Christian, the gift has still come from God. When the artist uses it, I don’t think that takes away from the power of it.
LM: Let's talk about theater. Why do you think people should go to the theater?
TK: Theater is an art form of language. It is the spoken word, and the Word was at the beginning of all things. It’s powerful when it works and people are connected. In a way, I wonder if there’s not a more evangelical art form than the theater.
If Christ is present in the arts, it doesn’t have to be about the Bible in order for the Holy Spirit to change lives. One of my greatest influencers was the movie Bonnie and Clyde. I grew up in the church and heard many sermons on Romans 3:23 and 6:23, but I didn’t think of myself as that bad of a guy deserving hell. When I saw the movie, for the first time, I identified myself as a sinner because of the power of the dramatic art form to make me identify with those characters. That’s the simple power of story. That’s why Christ never taught without telling a story.
There’s great instruction to artists in Revelation when John sees the vision of Christ and He says, “Write down what you see.” My responsibility is to be obedient to that. I trust the Holy Spirit to do what He wills with it. Just about the time I think it’s not having any effect, I hear a comment like the one from a respected stage manager after she saw our last show last season, Keeping Watch: “Every time I see a play here, I feel it changes my life somehow.”
More from Tom Key on Thursday.