Andrew Dinwiddie at The Chocolate Factory

photo by | Zack Brown

Thursday night took Culturebot to the opening of Andrew Dinwiddie’s GET MAD AT SIN ! at The Chocolate Factory. This fiery sermon is based on a 1971 record of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart recorded at the First Assembly of God in Van Buren, Arkansas. It is both historical document and portrait of Swaggart in his element before his televised rise to fame. And it is powerful stuff.

The easy route would be to make fun of Swaggart, but Dinwiddie wisely plays it straight, delivering the sermon with sincerity, passion and conviction. His performance is impressive, mastering the accent, rhythm and dynamics of Swaggart’s delivery. By performing it head-on, without irony, Dinwiddie leaves the audience the room to make its own inferences and to draw its own conclusions. Though some of the references are dated and inspire knowing laughter, mostly this is serious business. The intensity and focus of the sermon are reminiscent of early rock-and-roll or even punk rock. This is an all-out full-frontal assault on sin, driving forward with a fierce and important message. It is easy to see how Jimmy Swaggart’s relationship to his first cousin Jerry Lee Lewis is somehow symbolic of the relationship of evangelical Christianity and sinful entertainment. Just like Gospel and Soul music are cousins, in America the line between sinner and saved is a thin one.

The space in the Chocolate Factory is set up on a diagonal with two rows of seats on either side of a carpeted stage area with a podium on one side and a window on another. It looks like a small church and the intimacy of the setting is a powerful choice. You really get the excitement of seeing a preacher at the top of his game, before he gets big, when he’s still making a name for himself. I keep coming back to Punk Rock – the energy, the rebellious attitude. And make no mistake about it, Swaggart sees himself rebelling against a mainstream society plagued with drugs and licentiousness, with evil and sin. He’s gotta battle those forces and save his flock – save your soul.

Dinwiddie recreates Swaggart’s extraordinary oratorial skills and draws you in. You don’t question his authority, you go with it. And what’s weird is that from time to time you might even find yourself agreeing with him. Not very often, but every once in awhile there are points beneath the Hellfire and Brimstone that make a lot of sense. It is difficult to tell though, because the cadences, the rhetorical structure, are meant to whip you into a frenzy, to free associate, to follow the twisty paths of Swaggart’s logic.

This is fundamentalism before the big money hit, this is when it was down and dirty, before the Moral Majority came into existence, before there were fundamentalist Universities and Political Action committees and a huge infrastructure to support a right wing political agenda. This is Swaggart when he was in the trenches, battling for souls one small church at a time.

And now is a good time to revisit Swaggart’s early years. In the age of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, of Rick Warren and megachurches, it is important to remember the well of religious conviction from which all of this sprung. Those of us in the Big City are out of touch with this movement, but there is no doubt that it is alive and well in a lot of America.

I really enjoyed the show and recommend checking it out. GET MAD AT SIN! is more than just an anthropological experiment, it is riveting theater.

Watch a video here:

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