Couple to take Amish stories to the stage

Maynard Knepp dons the garb he will use to portray a fictional Amish minister in ?Jonas, the Life and Times of an Amishman,? a one-man presentation he and wife Carol Duerksen have developed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their first Amish-based novel, ?Runaway Baby.? Courtesy photo

The husband and wife team of Carol Duerksen and Maynard Knepp of rural Hillsboro are storytellers by profession and personality.

So, how else would this creative couple celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first installment of their self-published series of novels about the Amish people than to tell more stories?but with a totally different approach.

?Jonas, the Life and Times of an Amishman? will make its stage debut at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 8, at the Goessel High School Audit?orium. Admission is $5; children under 12 get in free.

The one-man show, developed by Duerksen, features her husband portraying Jonas Bontrager, the lead character in the four-part ?Jonas? book series. Knepp, who was raised in an Amish family, will portray Jonas as an old Amishman recalling the highlights of his life.

The first book, ?Runaway Buggy,? was published in 1994. It eventually led to three different Amish book series, totaling 10 books in all.

The stage production will cover the first two series. The third book in the ?Kate? series was released this past November.

Celebrate and educate

?In light of that 20th anniversary, we thought it?d be fun to do something to celebrate it and interest people possibly in the book again, because 20 years is a long time,? Duerksen said.

Staging the presentation as a one-man show plays into Knepp?s natural wheelhouse.

?Maynard has always been a storyteller,? Duerk?sen said. ?His dad was a storyteller and Maynard always has been. Whatever jobs he?s had, if he can talk and relate to people, he?s in heaven. That?s his thing.

?Knowing that a lot of people know him as a storyteller and a fun guy to listen to, I thought why not use him as Jonas Bontrager and let him basically tell Jonas? story as he remembers it.?

Duerksen, who wrote the script, said it took her husband some time to agree to the concept.

?Initially, he was afraid of having to memorize a whole hour?s worth,? she said. ?After seeing the script, and seeing that it?s prop-related?and related to stories he knows?it?s just a matter now of him getting it in his head.?

Fictitious character

Although ?Runaway Buggy? included a number of Knepp?s personal experiences as a youth growing up in an Amish community, the character of Jonas is actually fictitious and has matured with each book in the series.

?In ?Runaway Buggy,? the actual character could be based on Maynard because of his experiences,? Duerk?sen said. ?But by the time the second book, ?Hitched,? came out, the character took on his own life. He become his own person with his own life.?

Though Knepp first left the Amish church at age 18, he appreciates his boyhood experience.

?It was good growing up that way,? he said. ?It has changed a lot over the years, and the older I get the more respect I have for the Amish culture. I work with the Amish people in my work with Mennonite Central Committee.?

Knepp said he wouldn?t be one to encourage someone to leave the Amish.

?It?s not an easy journey,? he said. ?In fact, I would have never made the journey if it wouldn?t have been for the people around me.

?At one point I was going to go back, and there were some people who basically kidnapped me and locked me up for three days and brought in people to counsel me pretty well around the clock.?

Knowing God

That said, Knepp?s understanding of God over time has changed dramatically from those boyhood years.

?They don?t believe in a guaranteed salvation,? he said of the Amish. ?They only believe in hope. They believe you die and you go to the grave, and when Jesus returns you stand up from the grave and you go one way (heaven) or the other (hell).

?My dad always believed that if he did something wrong, he feared hell. That?s rough. It took me years not to see God as angry, judgmental God.

?When I first started going to Mennonite churches, and they started talking about being saved, I had no idea what they were talking about.?

Duerksen and Knepp hope their production will present an honest picture of the Amish culture.

?I hope it will bring a message that will inspire people to think about their own relationship and how they relate to God and how others relate to God,? Knepp said.

Duerksen said she hopes the production will communicate at least three truths:

? The tongue carries infinite power to do both evil and good.

? I can?t pray to God and tell him what his answer should be.

? God is like a big van?there?s always room to squeeze in another person.

Hitting the road

If the production is received well by local audiences, Duerksen and Knepp plan to perform it in additional settings around the country.

?Maynard does a lot of traveling with MCC, so if he?s out and about anyway in Mennonite communities, we?ll tag on to that with speaking engagements.?

The stage production is already booked for the Mennonite Church USA national conference in July, and the couple would like to perform it at the Mennonite World Conference in Pennsylvania July 21-26.

?We?d do it however many times it works out,? Duerk?sen said.

Added Knepp, ?It will make an Amish person much more real.?

by Don Ratzlaff

The Free Press

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