Gifts From God: A Staged Reading

Camille Pfister, Arts and Entertainment Editor 

and Peyton Hassinger, Contributing Writer

On Friday, February 3rd, Sewanee’s Department of Theatre and Dance hosted the first staged reading of a new play, Gifts From God, at the Tennessee Williams Center. The play is written by a former Walter E. Dakin Fellow at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, C. Meaker (she/they) and directed by Sarah Lacy Hamilton. The cast was composed of three of the University’s students: Allie Dent (C ’23) as Isabella Mae, Emme Hendrix (C ’25) as Nellie, and Eleora Ephrem (C ’26) as Jolene, with Georgia Austin (C ‘25) giving stage directions. The play features themes of ritual and religion, death, sexuality, sisterhood, and the supernatural to masterfully craft a modern, edge-of-your-seat folklore tale. 

Photo courtesy of Camille Pfister

Set deep within the Appalachian woods, the story follows three young women’s journeys through grief after the recent death of Nellie and Isabella Mae’s father, a local snake-handling pastor. Isabella Mae’s grief propels her towards her believing that her deceased father spoke to her through the voice of God. She ropes in her sister Nellie and best friend Jolene to assist her in conducting an inverted service under the guise of piety. Isabella Mae defends her actions by twisting the words of the bible to manipulate Nellie into assisting her. After finally convincing Nellie to conduct the ritual with her, the sisters start to experience psychosis-like symptoms during which Jolene begins to become frightened for her friends and starts to notice snakes begin to surround them. The play peaks as Isabella Mae and Nellie become completely engrossed in the ritual, speaking in tongues and praising an unknown entity. Immediately the audience knows this ritual has crossed the line dividing religion and witchcraft. Isabella Mae’s true intentions are revealed through unhinged concluding speech, and alongside thousands of snakes raining from the sky, the play ends. 

The play utilizes music, folklore, and relationships to tell a unique story of love and loss. Each of the characters have a different relationship with the woods and with God, as explained in the character description at the top of the play. Jolene is skeptical of both the woods and God, and is sensible and logical. Nellie trusts God with everything and she is worried about her sister. Isabella Mae is completely devoted and believes that her father is speaking to her through God. 

The play does a wonderful job of showing both sides of the argument surrounding religion. Jolene is not faithful, while Nellie and Isabella Mae put everything in their faith. Nellie does it out of trust, love, and devotion, while it is slowly revealed that Isabella Mae’s devotion comes from a place of fear. Isabella Mae and Jolene have fallen in love, and Isabella Mae fears that her father knew. Serpent handling pastors propel the belief that they won’t be bitten- or at least won’t die- from the snakes as long as they don’t let fear in. Isabella Mae feels overwhelming guilt and throughout the play, tries to convince herself that she didn’t kill her father. In the conclusion of the play, Isabella Mae lets out a heartbreaking confession that pulls all the pieces together, “I think I was the thing he was scared of.” 

“I really liked the queer aspect of the play, as someone who grew up in a faith-based household, and also identifies as queer,” Dent said. “A lot of the fear, and feeling of guilt, resonated with me.” 

By showing three different approaches to faith, the play allows viewers to connect with multiple character’s viewpoints and opinions, and see where they intersect. 

“I’ve always felt in the middle between faith and atheism, so I really love this blending that criticizes both sides, but never fully takes a side,” Hendrix said. 

Although staged readings can be restrictive in the sense that they do not grant full exposition to the play, they are a great opportunity for playwrights to assess the dialogue and effectiveness of the play. Utilizing nothing more than the actresses themselves humbly ordained in nightgowns and barefeet and a couple of modest props, the reading excelled in not only pulling in the audience but keeping them wholly engaged throughout the entirety of the seventy minute production.

“We only had one rehearsal, and it makes you a little nervous, but it also relieves a lot of the pressure,” Hendrix said. “You don’t have to memorize, you just have to read, you can be free.” 

The staged reading format allows the actors to focus on the emotional delivery of the lines, and worry less about the movements and technical aspects of performing. The actors, with only some direction, get to express the lines in the way they feel work the best. 

“This isn’t going to happen again, so just do it how you think it should be done, and how you think the characters would want it to be done,” Ephrem said. 

Meaker is an accomplished and prolific playwright whose works have received much recognition; they are a Stranger Award Genius Nominee for their play That’swhatshesaid, a Gregory Award Outstanding New Play Nominee for their play The Lost Girls, and a 2017 Princess Grace semi-finalist for their play Made of These. Meaker grew up in Tennessee and was always a horror obsessed child, gravitating toward the grotesque and obscure. This is reflected in their plays including Gifts From God, which on its own deals with obscure themes such as snake-handling religious organizations and twisted rituals summoning unknown malevolent beings.

Following the reading, Meaker talked with the audience about the process of playwriting and where she got inspiration for the play. Meaker took inspiration from books, documentaries, and various folklores surrounding snake-handling pastors, all connected back to a story their brother-in-law told her.

“About a year ago, my father, who was a pastor, died,” Meaker said. “When I got into town for the funeral [my brother-in-law] told me this story where he was at a gas station and these people came up to him and asked him about serpent handling churches nearby.” 

Meaker went on to explain that the couple who asked their brother-in-law about these churches were on a “mission” to destroy the serpents, and they insisted to pay Meaker’s brother-in-law for his time, and gave him a chunk of gold worth 2,000 dollars from their trunk. The weirdness of this story, and the connection of Meaker’s own grief for their father is how this play idea first emerged.