Aimee Semple McPherson, a charismatic evangelist who learned how to harness the power of the media and popular culture before succumbing to a drug overdose in 1944, is the subject of an original, one-woman play to be presented Jan. 24-26 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center by the theatre program at Rogers State University.
“An Evangelist Drowns,” written by Dr. Gregory Thompson, head of the RSU English and Humanities department, will be presented in the Liddy Doenges Theatre at the Tulsa PAC at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 24-26. Tickets are available at the Tulsa PAC box office, by calling 596-7111 or visiting www.myticketoffice.com.
Founder of the Foursquare Pentecostal Church in Los Angeles, McPherson was one of the first evangelists to utilize the mass media to spread her religious message. Through her cult of personality, McPherson employed highly crafted messages that easily worked their way into the popular culture. She traveled up and down the East Coast and eventually journeyed across the country in 1918 before settling in California. She was often surrounded by public attention and controversy.
In 1926, she disappeared while swimming near Venice Beach, Calif. At the time, it was assumed she drowned. However, 35 days later, she stumbled out of the desert in Mexico, claiming to have been kidnapped and drugged. A grand jury found no evidence of a kidnapping, leading to rumors about her disappearance, including a dalliance with a lover and purported recovery from plastic surgery. In 1944, she was found dead of, what was officially ruled, an accidental drug overdose in a hotel room in Oakland, Calif.
Several plays, films and books have been based on her life, including a recent installment of the PBS program “American Experience.” Additionally she is alluded to in drama and literature including Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry” and Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”
Thompson wrote the play after conducting extensive research into the evangelist’s life for his doctoral dissertation at Florida State University. The title of his dissertation was “Aimee Semple McPherson: Therapeutic Responses to the Culture of Abundance.” The study focused on the proliferation of therapeutic culture through non-clinical avenues in America during the 19th and 20th centuries. Specifically the study focused on the shift between the intuitions of religion and business as the primary source for moral grounding and individual self-valuation, Thompson said. This shift is demonstrated in the language of self-reliance and self-determination. McPherson’s life and work was the case study for this exploration.
“I’ve always been interested in her as a cultural icon,” Thompson said. “I have degrees in theatre, religion, and interdisciplinary humanities, so naturally, I’ve always had an interest in areas where religion, performance and pop culture intersect.
“McPherson was right at the vortex of that phenomenon. She was very successful at tapping into the therapeutic culture and capitalized on how people began trying to ‘self-realize’ themselves,” he said.
Thompson selected to focus his play on the final hours of the evangelist’s life as she looked back and revisited her most significant moments.
Mariah Owen, a 21-year-old RSU student from Claremore, will carry the entire one-woman show on her shoulders, playing a 54-year-old McPherson. To Thompson, that’s not a stretch. “As an actress, she has the maturity and stature of a much older person. I think she is well-positioned to carry off this role well.”
This is Thompson’s second year as a professor at RSU. Previously, he taught at New York University, Florida State University and Florida Community College. His academic specialties include dramaturgy, Shakespeare, theatre history, the medieval and early modern English stage and consumer culture.