FORT MILL — It all started with a little book.
Three generations come to the stage to honor their family member during the production of “The Gospel According to Tennessee” at NarroWay Theater and Conference Center in Fort Mill.
Set in 1926 East Tennessee, the show tells the story of Lessie Henderson, who is described as a “great woman of faith,” said Rebecca Martin, executive director for NarroWay and Lessie’s great-granddaughter.
Martin developed the story from legends passed down about her great-grandmother and on a book Lessie began to write detailing her life before her untimely death at the age of 38 from a brain tumor. She was survived by her husband, Charlie, who lived to be 106.
The autobiography, contained in a small notebook, was passed down to Lessie’s first daughter, Martin’s grandmother. After her grandmother’s death, Martin said her family found the book folded in her grandmother’s purse.
“Nobody knew it existed,” Martin said.
While Martin never met her great-grandmother and Lessie was never able to finish her book, Martin used what her family knew about Lessie to write and direct the musical in her honor.
“It’s about somebody that cared about other people beyond racial and social barriers,” she said.
Martin said Lessie taught the moonshiners to read the Bible.
She said Lessie believed God had a promise and purpose for her. Though she died at a young age and did not see the promise fulfilled, Martin said it is being fulfilled generations later through their tribute to Lessie.
“[The show] is about faith and believing that God promises,” she said.
Lessie’s children are also played by her great, great, great-grandchildren in the show. At one point, there are three generations on the stage.
“She has family bringing [her] story to life,” Martin said. “It’s a feel-good show.”
In one of the show’s casts, Lessie’s character is played by Teresa Brown, her great-granddaughter and Martin’s sister.
“It’s amazing to play a woman who never got to tell her own story,” Brown said.
At the end of the show, Brown will read excerpts from Lessie’s book.
“It’s my great privilege to play such an outstanding human being,” she said. “We pray that Lessie knows her story is being told.”
Lessie’s great, great-granddaughter Hope Phelps plays a Tennessee angel in one of the show’s cast and does the costuming for the show. Phelps said she grew up hearing the stories about Lessie and Charlie.
“The stage cannot contain the legends of the two of them,” she said.
Phelps’ two sons also have roles in the show. In the cast, Elijah Phelps, 8, plays the role of Lessie’s 6-year-old son Daniel, while Kelsey Phelps, 12, plays Silas , an older son.
“For them to see the legacy they came from is wonderful for me,” Phelps said. “They love it.”
While the show is sure to bring some tears, it is full of laughter and familiar songs, said Cheryl Lipian, director of marketing and public relations for NarroWay. Audiences will also get the chance to take pictures inside a 1928 Model A Ford, commonly referred to as a “Tin Lizzy.”
The show continues to sell out and bring audiences from all over the country, Lipian said.
“It’s an uplifting show,” she said. “It’s such an honor to be in a show that tells another person’s story.”