Known to the Harrisburg region for the past 28 years as the “voice of central PA,” Cary Burkett is a familiar voice on WITF’s “Center Stage” and on the news as an arts and culture producer for the station. Now in addition to his radio responsibilities, Burkett, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater from the University of Texas, will return to his acting roots playing Mr. Zuss in Messiah College’s production of “J.B.” by Archibald MacLeish.
“J.B.” is a play within a play that is based on the Old Testament book of Job. J.B. is an upright man who continually faces catastrophe and therefore, after much steadfast faith, begins to question the presence of God in his life. Bringing to light the complex question of why God lets good people suffer, audience members watch as two circus clowns, Nickles and Mr. Zuss, who assume the roles of Satan and God respectively, debate J.B.’s devotion to God.
“Archibald MacLeish wrote ‘J.B.’ in response to the innocent suffering that resulted from two world wars and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” commented Director and Professor of Theatre Valerie Smith. “He was struggling to understand affliction as a person of haunted faith.”
When Burkett received an email from guest designer and former Messiah College professor of theatre, Tom Ryan, for community actors to audition, he was excited for the opportunity.
“I knew if Tom was involved with it, it would be a good show,” said Burkett. “Also, as a person of faith, I knew performing at Messiah would most likely be something I would enjoy being a part of.”
Burkett began his career in acting in New York. While auditioning and performing in off-Broadway shows, Burkett, who has also had an interest in comics since his youth, began working for DC Comics to supplement his acting jobs. After working his way up through the editorial staff at DC Comics and even creating his own superhero, Nemesis, Burkett went on to become a freelance writer for Marvel Comics and Red Circle Comics. Eventually, after meeting and marrying his wife who was from the Harrisburg area, Burkett relocated to central Pennsylvania and began his on-air job at WITF.
As an arts and culture producer, Burkett interviews people from all aspects of the arts in central Pennsylvania. “The arts scene is thriving, and there are so many people pushing through downturn of the economy to make things happen,” said Burkett. “It’s inspiring.”
Much of the inspiration for this particular show came from choosing a performance to appropriately reflect on Messiah’s Christian traditions during the inaugural season of the High Center for Worship and Performing Arts.
“I have been fascinated with this play ever since I was in college, and so I was thrilled when ‘J.B.’ was selected for our season,” said Smith. “It seems important to celebrate the inauguration of Poorman Black Box Theater with a story that explicitly addresses faith. While all theater explores truth and offers an opportunity for artists to pursue their calling, I wanted to direct a play that addresses our relationship with God through theatre. ‘J.B.’ authentically addresses our longing for God, our anguish over the suffering of the innocent and our need for human compassion.”
Burkett, who is also a firm believer in bringing the strengths of theater into the church, sees this exploration of faith and questioning of the human reaction in times of tragedy as themes that make the show entertaining and thought provoking.
“The play is tremendously well-written,” reflected Burkett. “It’s not meant to be a sermon, but it is meant to help us come to grips with a very difficult question of why people suffer and what it means to suffer. It brings in reference to scripture, but it is really one man’s own personal struggle with it. Because he [MacLeish] was such a good writer, it becomes our struggle as well. MacLeish leaves it in a way that you can draw your own questions from it. He doesn’t create a black and white description of what his own philosophy is, but he leaves enough that you can find your own answers.”
The play runs Oct. 16, 17 and 18 at 8 p.m., and Oct. 20 at 3 p.m. All performances take place in Poorman Black Box Theater in the Climenhaga Building. Following the Oct. 20 performance, local religious leaders and health care providers will reflect on their personal experiences in grief counseling. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for students and senior citizens. Purchase tickets by calling the Messiah CollegeTicket Office at 717-691-6036 or visit messiah.edu/theatretickets.
Story by Erin Bray ’10. Photography by Megan Dobinson `16.