Manchester actor Karen Wainright’s “June Sanders” characterization triggered belly laughs throughout the packed theater on a recent cold winter’s night as a church “signing lady” during the spirited old spiritual… “Keep on the Firing Line”… as Sister June signed rapid-fire with both hands symbolically blazing away toward the audience.
If you’re a senior with bladder problems like me, best check in the restroom before witnessing Sanders’ Family Christmas, because you’re going to laugh so hard, well, you can imagine such potential hygiene concerns out in public.
At the ‘Firing Line’ song’s closure, June brought the packed-out house audience to its laughter-weakened knees as she “blew smoke” as if to cool her amazing blazing finger-guns, proving that it’s not always the actor with the most lines that turns out to be the show’s “star.”
There were no need for words with June’s sensational talent for letting mere facial expressions tell the church “sign lady” story.
“June is our ‘signing lady” in case we ever get a deaf person in the congregation,” confirmed Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe, as portrayed by David Cummings, at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church located some where “over yonder in them hills,”… maybe up on Cannon County’s mystical foggy and snowed-in Short Mountain.
“It laid me out when June Sanders, at the song’s end, had to blow on her rapid-firing fingers to cool them off from signing on the ‘Firing Line’,” credited audience member Leon Ruehland, a legendary retired medical doctor from Woodbury.
“I cracked up when June started firing her machine-gun fingers in sign language,” echoed play-attending Mona Herring, an executive of tourism promotion for the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce.
“Tears ran down my husband’s face, he laughed so hard,” credited La Vergne resident Carole Gentry.
“It’s one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen,” testified theater-attendee Mary Sue Salmons of Smyrna.
“June stole the show,” charged La Vergne resident Carolyn Sheffield.
“I couldn’t watch the play, for keeping an eye cast on the hysterical signing lady,” described Robert Gentry, who as a real church deacon, headed up a Sunday school group from Smyrna Parkway Baptist to attend the annual Christmas dinner and play.
Performance attendee Dr. I.N. Sheffield, a retired ordained Baptist minister who preached at multiple churches and foot-washing services up in the mountains of North Carolina, laughingly agreed he’s familiar with churches like the mythical Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church as portrayed in this remarkable play house production.
“I knew multiple preachers like actor Cummings portrayed the Rev. Oglethorpe,” Rutherford County resident Dr. Sheffield testified after the play. “I especially identified with the humor, and the old timey church-like testimonies offered by the actors…the play brought back a lot of good soul-satisfying memories of my former backwoods’ country church ministry.
“The piano-playing by actor David Winton especially took me back where I grew up in the mountains,” the Rev. Dr. Sheffield diagnosed. “Where some people tickle the piano keys, young David vigorously ‘thumped them.’ Where I grew up, we’d have 15 folks maybe in the pews. I’ll return for an encore viewing of the Sanders’ Family Christmas…”
On a personal note, I have a friendship dating back decades with play lead actor John Blankenship. I first knew him as a real-life lawyer who donated his time and professional talents in a long drawn-out political crusade to establish a Room in the Inn for homeless children, men and women in Murfreesboro. He’s a great actor too who helped launch the Arts Center of Cannon County to national prominence down through the decades.
Blankenship’s portrayal of character Burl Sanders, who heads up the play’s Sanders Family Gospel group, was ‘on key’ and he blended perfectly with his brother, David Blankenship, who portrayed country and western recording artist/ex-con Stanley “Yodeling” Sanders.
“I’m better at gum-beating with a song than I am standing up here and testifying,” singer Stanley noted. “I ain’t proud of my prison past, for one foolish moment can wash out a life of decent living and good deeds. I did 18 months of hard labor, and deserved every bit of my sentence. But my good Sanders’ family stood by me, and led me to a mature relationship with our good Lord…”