Unlike today’s round-the-clock news and social media coverage of every major event, no television cameras existed when Christ was born — but a local actor and playwright seeks to provide the next-best thing.
Since 1986, Mark Donnell of Mount Airy has been telling the story of Christ’s birth from the viewpoint of a shepherd, through appearances at church and school gatherings and a variety of other public and private settings.
He dons the robe a tender of flocks might have worn in ancient times and leads his audiences through the events of the birth as they were first announced in a field outside Bethlehem, using biblical text and gentle humor.
“Thirty years ago I was asked to do a presentation for Patrick County (Virginia) High School for their Christmas dinner,” Donnell said Thursday in recalling the origins of his shepherd’s role.
That performance was well-received and since has led Donnell, a retired longtime educator in Patrick schools, to share it with other audiences around the region. On Nov. 27, for example, he gave a presentation at Calvary Baptist Church on South Franklin Road, Mount Airy, and also has appeared recently in Lenoir and Patrick Springs, Virginia.
“It started out as kind of an improvisational piece,” Donnell explained, which was then developed into a script for his unique version of the Christmas story that is aimed at both enlightening and entertaining audiences.
“And it becomes a story they really like instead of a story they’re obligated to hear every year,” Donnell said.
But it’s one firmly rooted in the Bible. The story Donnell delivers is based on an account in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. It tells how an angel of the Lord appears in a bright cloud to a group of shepherds in a field and brings them “good tidings of great joy” about the impending gift to mankind of Christ’s birth.
Donnell takes on the character of “Abba Ding,” one of those shepherds. By personifying the shepherd, Donnell makes Abba Ding more than just an anonymous tender of a flock, but an eyewitness to history who delivers a you-are-there report.
“Though many have heard this event recounted, few have experienced how amazing it would have been to hear of Jesus’ birth for the very first time,” Donnell said of the shepherd-on-the-scene approach. A period from the angel’s Christmas night appearance through a meeting with the infant Jesus himself is covered.
“To be confronted by an angel would be startling enough, but to hear that the infant king would be found in a feed box in a stable would be unimaginable,” Donnell added.
“That first-time amazement is what we seek to share in this presentation,” he said, “what it would have been like to experience parts of the Christ story for the first time with no biases or preconceived notions.”
Donnell is a veteran performer in the area who draws on a wide range of experience for his role as Abba Ding.
“I’m a professional clown and have been in local productions of the Surry Arts Council in the past,” he said.
Though he retired as an educator in Patrick County last spring, Donnell continues to teach theater courses and spent last summer studying mask-making in New York City.
For now, though, Donnell is focused on his one-man Christmas show, which he is available to perform throughout the holiday season, including for family gatherings. Details on bookings are available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“My wife is my director, Linda,” Donnell said.
“But as far as the actual production, it’s just me” — and a shepherd named Abba Ding.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.