Sharing Stories and Hope: A Conversation with Melanie Hutcheson
Between Noah and The Record Keeper, this has been a tough month for the arts. Writer Nate Fleming explains some of the deep issues the Christian community has to work through, but artists and creatives are a resilient people.
This week, I’m pleased to introduce you to my friend Melanie Hutcheson. A public relations and marketing officer by day, Melanie spends her off-hours with civil society organizations including the Bahamas AIDS Foundation, which serves children and adults with HIV or AIDS, and the Historic Bahamas Foundation, which preserves and promotes heritage sites in The Bahamas.
Her most recent project is church-based. Then Came The Morning is a 90-minute seasonal narrative-musical play sponsored by the South Bahamas Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Through monologues and song, the audience enters into the stories of Jesus’ disciples after the crucifixion. While many Passion plays focus on Jesus’ trial and execution, Then Came the Morning explores what happened next, and traces the disciples’ confusion, doubt, fear, grief, and hope.
Opening night is this Wednesday, April 16. I was able to talk with Melanie late last week about the play and local churches’ support.
KM: How did you get involved with this project?
MH: I got inspired with the idea about two years ago. I’d spent some time out of church but spent Friday nights with my mother and sister. We would listen to music that Mom liked and one of the songs I heard was “Then Came The Morning” from The Gaither Vocal Band.
The song made me think: What would the disciples have been feeling after Jesus died? They must have been disappointed; had they gotten it wrong? All the things that they’d seen before didn’t gel with Him dying. And what about his mother? She’d gotten a prophecy about Him. What was their experience?
They all walked away, with nothing to say,
They’d just lost their dearest friend.
All that He said, now He was dead,
So this was the way it would end.
The dreams they had dreamed were not what they’d seemed,
Now that He was dead and gone.
The garden, the jail, the hammer, the nail,
How could a night be so long.
Then came the morning, night turned into day;
The stone was rolled away, hope rose with the dawn.
Then came the morning, shadows vanished before the sun,
Death had lost and life had won, for morning had come. —Bill Gaither
Shortly after I heard this song, I heard another song at church that linked me to another character in the Bible. Last September the story came back to me, and I felt inspired by the Holy Spirit to put the narrative together.
Is this your first play?
No, not my first. I’ve written a few smaller vignettes for my church since 2003. However, this is the longest one and the one with the most exposure.
What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?
I’d sent this idea to the elders of my church one day—as something I wanted to do to broaden our evangelism. I didn’t know that it had never been done before, that we “don’t do drama.”
Coincidentally they were having an elders’ meeting that night, and they discussed and approved it in principle at that meeting! We discussed the full script; they shared it with the conference, and the conference decided to endorse the play as a title sponsor.
So now when you look at the promotional posters, they include the conference’s name. It worked out perfectly: we were able to draw on their media resources and it snowballed from there.
What about the cast and crew? When I look at the Facebook page, some of them look quite young.
The average age of our actors is about 25 years old. The youngest is 18 years old—actually the son of the conference president. And we have two pastors’ wives involved as well, which is great. Two pastors’ children in all.
The story itself is focused on the people who were around Jesus so it’s a mixed cast: Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, Peter, James, John, Simon of Cyrene… There are about nine or ten monologues, and we have narrators, a dramatic chorus (I thought of our English literature professor Eric Pryce when I started writing the words in medias res!). And there are soloists and a dance team.
We book-end the play with a 10-15-minute praise service and an invitation for people to enter into a closer walk with Jesus: the program is a worship experience except that the “sermon” is the play.
Who would you say is your ideal audience? Are you aiming the program at church members, non-members, or some other group?
We’ve done pretty well with our church people but also want to reach those who haven’t been exposed to the story this way, and we’re encouraging families who are really engaged to bring people with them who haven’t heard it.
We want to see people who might be familiar with the story: it might not have meant much to them before, but they can see it in a new and personal way.
And there will be people going through a “nighttime” experience, a dark night of the soul, and they also need to hear their story. They need to hear some hope.
“We want to reach people who haven’t been exposed to the story of Jesus in this way… People going through a dark night of the soul need to hear some hope.” —Melanie Hutcheson
Then Came The Morning is part of the South Central Bahamas Conference’s “Back to Faith” revival program. Back to Faith is designed to reach out to people who’ve left the church for whatever reason. I might actually be a Back to Faith testimonial myself!
Why did you leave?
I can’t pinpoint a moment when things changed for me. There were times on and off after I came back from college when I hadn’t been going regularly because… I guess because of conceit? I was going but finding myself thinking that the sermons weren’t engaging enough. I’m also not a super “social” person—not unfriendly, but not really outgoing so I didn’t have a support system during those times.
At home I found [the General Conference’s cable station] Hope Channel, and I thought I could just maintain my relationship that way. But you kind of drift if you’re not in a congregation. I think my reasons were “I’m not learning as much as I think I should be in my local church,” but there’s a reason churches exist. I still don’t have a social circle at my church, but they’ve been praying for me and supporting me through all of this.
I know these aren’t everyone’s reasons for leaving church, but they were mine. Coming back turned out to be the right decision for me.
“I wasn’t expecting the challenge to come from within the Adventist church. That took me by surprise.” —Melanie Hutcheson
So your church has supported the program?
Yes, my church has definitely supported us. This congregation may be a little progressive than many in The Bahamas.
After the conference began to advertise Then Came the Morning, I was confronted by some individuals who challenged the church’s support for dramatic performances. I panicked when I heard that their group was going to discuss the play in a public forum. So I talked to my church elders. They knew about it and told me not to worry. Everyone had told me, “You’re going to be challenged like you never have before.” So I was expecting ordinary things, like that the money wouldn’t come through. I wasn’t expecting the challenge to come from within the Adventist church. That took me by surprise.
Did you consider engaging them directly?
No, I’m not going to dwell on the protests.
I’m thankful for this experience and it’s really focused me. Without the play, I might have done another “revolving door” thing out of the church. As word about the play started to spread, I hightailed it to an early morning prayer service at my congregation. It’s a really caring group of people and about 40 minutes away from where I live. I often take my nieces and nephews with me now.
“God doesn’t give you talents to sit on. And He doesn’t give everyone the same talents.” —Melanie Hutcheson
What message would you like to send to others in the church?
I think we should all just use the talents we have. A lot of times we don’t use what we have because we want to have other people’s strengths.
God doesn’t give you talents to sit on. And He doesn’t give everyone the same talents. Keisha, I couldn’t sing to save your soul. But If I can write, I’m doing His work. That I’m not giving a bible study, or organizing an “Easter Cantata”—that doesn’t mean it’s any less evangelistic.
And as cliché as it is, there are some people that can be reached just by your smile. A member invited some of her neighbors to our church. They were from an upscale neighborhood in Nassau. When they came, they told us they’d come because of her smile and her demeanor. They may not have talked about church with her, but she was living a life that made people want to be around her and to learn where she was getting her strength from.
How do you define evangelism?
I’m a Seventh-day Adventist now, but I grew up Baptist, and I believe Billy Graham is one of the best evangelists Christianity has had. Evangelism is simply presenting Jesus, and letting Him do the work. It’s just presenting Jesus.
“Jesus Himself used creative arts… I take Him as my example.” —Melanie Hutcheson
What role do you think art should play in evangelism?
Jesus Himself used creative arts. He was a storyteller; in our time, He could have been a screenwriter. The arts have their place in the church and I take Him as my example.
I naturally use a lot of examples and idioms: for me, explaining something is telling a story and telling a story means painting a picture. This is how I communicate, and it’s how some people learn as well: they learn through what they see.
I recently started reading a version of the Bible that I can’t wait to read every night. It puts things in people’s own language so that the message can come across. The gospel itself is simple.
In my church we’ve had what we called a “praise café”: Christian poets, liturgical dance, art. I don’t think we should discount those gifts in the church.
Where can people find you later this week?
Then Came The Morning will be at the Dundas Center for the Performing Arts, Nassau, on April 16-18 and April 20. Entry is free: sales weren’t our motivation and we’e not offering concessions either because we’re trying to keep the space free of merchandise. Please remember us and the people who will come in your prayers!
Join Melanie and the Then Came the Morning team on the program’s Facebook page. Remember performances are every evening later this week from Wednesday April 16 through Sunday, April 20. There is no performance on Sabbath, April 19.