By Christopher White, National Correspondent
NEW YORK — On a nightly basis this month – and on weekend afternoons – “the word” is becoming flesh in lower Manhattan with a one-man performance of the “The Gospel of John” at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture.
Longtime Broadway actor Ken Jennings has memorized the entirety of his favorite Gospel – which he first began to commit to memory as a personal prayer – and at age 72, is thrilling audiences with his new dramatic staging of it.
In an interview with The Tablet, Jennings said that it took him somewhere between two to three years to memorize the full text, which he turned to when he was going through a rough period in his personal life.
Throughout the performance, he often carries a small pocket-sized Bible around the stage with him – a Bible that dates back to when he was a part of the original Broadway cast of “Sweeney Todd” in the 1970s.
It was that same Bible that he would carry with him when he’d go out jogging in New York and that he’d use on the walks back to his apartment to read passages from the book of John.
Now, that reading has developed into a full, dramatic recitation in this 90-minute staging which, in some respects, marks the climax of years of scripture studies, dating back to his Jesuit education at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey.
“The Jesuits introduced us to a lot of scripture, and it just stuck with me,” said Jennings, adding that one of his teachers told him at a young age that whatever was happening in his personal life, “always remember to pray.”
The Gospel of John has always stood out to him, he told The Tablet, as “so very obviously” the firsthand account.
“It’s so specific with time and place, he’s the only one with three Passovers, and he devotes four chapters of dialogue to the Last Supper,” said Jennings.
Some years ago, when he was reading Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy, he was pleased to learn that the former pope concurred about John being the firsthand account.
As audience members file into the black box theatre in downtown Manhattan, Jennings is there among them – milling around the theatre, stretching, and centering his thoughts on the passages which he is about to recite.
The wooden stage is bare, with only a small bench, which he moves around throughout the performance, and while occasional sounds and lighting underscore his words, it’s evident that the point of the performance is the text itself.
For Jennings, when he considers the Gospel of John, he thinks back on the original way it must have been shared – that of oral tradition.
At the Sheen Center, a cultural center operated by the Archdiocese of New York, Jennings seeks to continue that tradition.
“John wasn’t an actor,” he says of his casual, direct manner of bringing the audience into the setting from the moment they enter the theatre. “That’s the way I’d like to do it, too.”
“I want to do this as close of a way as John, and as much as possible in a way that John himself might have first told the story,” he continues. “He’s just going to tell them the story, he’s saying ‘this is what I saw, this is what I heard, this is what I experienced. I’m not telling you this to perform it for you.’”
While performances of the show continue through December 29, Jennings is quick to point out that it all began as a personal prayer.
“I’ll continue to do this as a prayer regardless if there are future performances,” he says, “no matter if there’s an audience or not.”