It’s rumored in 1611, the year the King James Bible (KJB) was published, a well-known poet helped scribe the most popular book in the world. Forty-six-year-old William Shakespeare was known for constructing most of modern society’s language in England. With a great deal of Christians being illiterate, the scripture needed to be written with the right language and colorful stories that a layman could understand and relate to when it was read aloud.
“[To clarify, he wasn’t a part of] the actual translation process,” says Kalli Smith, marketing director for the local King James Initiative. “[It] was done by several scholars who knew Greek, Latin, Aramaic, and Hebrew fluently. For example, if you read Psalm 46 and count 46 words in, there’s the word ‘shake.’ If you count 46 words from the end, there’s the word ‘spear.’ Coincidence?”
The King James Initiative—incubated by Alchemical Theatre Company and consisting of producer Amanda Marino, lead actor Ashley Strand and Smith—is hosting a live reading of The Gospel of Mark from KJB at Old Books on Front Street on Saturday. “We hope to showcase professional, classically trained actors who are performing portions of KJB to allow people to immerse themselves in that language, hearing it the way it was meant to be heard,” Smith says.
Strand will read and essentially perform The Gospel of Mark’s action-packed and exciting stories, and bring to life characters like John the Baptist, Pilate, Joseph, Mary, the Syro-Phoenician Woman, Judas, and more. Strand is approaching it as a radio-play, wherein audiences need to imagine and feel the characters.
“The villains and heroes are clear,” Strand tells. “It’s almost all plot. It’s a great story and there’s a lot of humor in there! Most of it is wry, but some of it is simple and homey, which is easy to miss when you’re thinking, ‘This is the Son of God, I better be serious!’”
Most importantly, the show isn’t only relegated to Christians. Smith calls out Shakespearean aesthetes who will find as much appeal, especially in the narrative which highlights Elizabethan and Jacobean speech.
“I would have never considered KJB as something in the Shakespearean canon of literary art; that never crossed my mind,” admits Smith, who has recently converted to Christianity and begun researching which Bible to study. “Now that I’ve seen it, I get to appreciate it from so many angles: from a spiritual angle, and from my appreciation for theatre, poetry and art.”
Strand loves how fancy the language makes everything seem—how it preserves a society of a specific time and place. At the onslaught of the 1600s, London had experienced an influx of people from various areas and hamlets, all of whom descended upon the metropolis speaking new dialects. Thus, words and pronunciations began to develop and multiply, and writers, poets, artists, and historians of the time began listening and reflecting it back in their own works.
“[The language then] has a mysterious power to imbue an otherwise ordinary phrase with status and authority,” Strand explains. “Why do we feel like giggly nobility when we hear or say ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ to our friends? Why does ‘I shall’ sound so much more significant than ‘I will’? Why does appending ‘eth’ to verbs conjugated in the present and a silent ‘e’ to nouns like ‘old’ put us in the mood for an afternoon’s ribaldry at the local Ren Fair(e)?”
Though unfamiliar with The Gospel of Mark—sans a devout grandmother who informed him somewhat in youth—Strand has been drawn to all the situations presented and the people driving the story and reacting to it. The characters have spoken to Strand in unexpected ways, even. The power of the text has reflected back to him personally, not to mention the world-at-large—even if it were written five centuries ago.
“The continuing relevance of the ancient text is something I understood intellectually before but to feel it is surprising,” he notes, “to have bits of scripture echo in your head throughout the day and nag at you, to see your own greatest weakness described not only succinctly but poetically in one thin verse, is profound and humbling,” he praises.
The actor even looks back on roles he has played beforehand as well-informing preparation for the Gospel. He has played the comic relief many times over, as Pompey in “Measure for Measure” and Sir Andrew in “Twelfth Night.” Such personifications come with bombastic revelations on stage and with audiences, as humor often humanizes a story and helps it stick with viewers long-term. As much can be found in the Bible, despite the hardships and cruelty, and love and compassion most associate with it.
“I saw [humor] brought the audience closer to the material—which is crucial to Mark’s intent,” Strand informs. “He wants no artifice; he wants you to be able to put yourself in the story. If you went out to the desert, had a vision, and then came back to your hometown, preaching a new creed and saying you could heal the sick, how do you think that would go for you? Exactly the way Mark says it went for Jesus, probably—which is hilarious, especially to a stand-up comedian who has bombed for a hometown crowd, family, and friends many times. But the truth of that moment he captures through humor is very convincing.”
The disciples entertain Strand the most because of how wrong they perceive everything, and how it links back to Jesus. The text shows how the Son of God treats everyone and how they respond. “It’s illustrative of his creed and the challenges he faces in spreading it,” according to Strand. Mark doesn’t go easy on the disciples either.
“I’m fascinated by the Syro-Phoenician woman,” Strand tells, “not so much by her as a character, but by what her interaction with Jesus means. I don’t know the answer, but my current thinking on it is this: As the Son of Man, he is fallible, which is why he initially refers to her as a dog. But she convinces him, or reminds him, salvation is for everyone who repents and has faith. At the heart of this Gospel is a radical questioning of authority—principle trumps authority every time—in this case, even when the authority is Jesus himself.”
Reading The Gospel of Mark will be the second event the King James Initiative has hosted locally. The first took place at St. Jude’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in June. “We also recently filmed a promotional video at St. Jude’s MCC so we can more easily explain to folks what we’re all about,” Smith tells.
The reading will be free to attend, but donations are accepted, with proceeds benefitting the charity of choice decided upon by the host, Old Books on Front Street. Smith says they want to launch events throughout Wilmington, Southport and Leland in religious and nonreligious venues. They already have a church interested in hosting one to help the congregation become more “Bible literate.”
“But different audiences are going to watch [our shows] with different goals in mind,” Smith expands. For instance Strand could read the Old Testament at a Jewish synagogue. “[Or some may simply] appreciate a work of literature the way you’d enjoy a Shakespeare play. . . . Basically, everyone can take something away from this performance, it’s that versatile.”