Theater

Acts of Strength

I need you, you need me. We’re all a part of God’s body. Stand with me ... I need you to survive.”

Alma, a 37-year-old woman with compassionate eyes and smooth skin, stood on the chapel stage of the Dwight Correctional Center in central Illinois singing these words, written by composer Hezekiah Walker. It was the second performance of an original play called Phenomenal Women: Our Past Does Not Reflect Our Future, created by nine incarcerated women. Alma sang to her fellow inmates sitting in the audience on wooden pews, looking at them with deep love, offering the gift of herself. She seemed full of confidence and radiance. Having directed the play, I sat in the front row, feeling gratitude and wonder wash through my spirit.

Later that day, I read a newspaper article about our performance, which included interviews with the actresses. When I direct performances, I never ask the women why they are incarcerated, so I was astonished when I read, halfway through the article, “... Alma Durr, who said she accidentally shot her son when she attempted to take her own life.” Tears streamed down my face.

Months later, I sat with Alma in the solarium of the correctional center. The room was full of windows letting in midday light. We spoke about her childhood of sexual abuse, her life of prostitution, and her past addiction. But we also spoke about that second performance, when she sang with such joy. “I’ll never forget how beautiful you were,” I said. She smiled and said, “You know, you say that but I never felt that way in my life. But that day I did feel beautiful. I felt like I was on top of the world.”

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Sojourners Magazine November 2007
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Dramatic Faith

James Martin, SJ, unexpectedly became a “theological dramaturge” when playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and his cast sought help in developing the characters for Guirgis’ play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The play portrays Judas’ trial in purgatory for betraying Jesus. For six months, Martin and cast members embarked on late-night conversations about not only the historical and theological contexts surrounding Jesus and Judas, but also such weighty questions as, What is sin? and Why does God allow despair? In A Jesuit Off-Broadway, Martin recounts how the experience enriched his understanding of the dramatic aspects of Jesus’ work and story.

 

When the lights went down on the closing night performance, the audience stood up to cheer and stamp their feet on the risers. The cast assembled for the last time to accept the audience’s praise. Stephen was called onstage, took a well-deserved bow, and exited the stage with the cast. In my seat in the front row, I found myself tearful, hoping that no one would see. This was it, I thought. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot would never again exist in this form, with this cast. What everyone had worked for all these months was now finished.

Now I better understood how the show had influenced my faith. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot began its first readings in January, just a few weeks before Lent began that year. The play opened for previews the day before Ash Wednesday. The run continued throughout the season of Lent, and the play closed shortly after Easter Sunday. This timetable meant that during the run, the stories of the final days of Jesus’ ministry—his entry into Jerusalem, his last meal with his friends, his betrayal at the hands of Judas, and his capture, trial, and crucifixion—were being read during daily Masses. At the same time I was thinking about Jesus and Judas onstage, I was thinking about them while I was in church.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2007
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Word Become Fresh

Prelude: Live theater first enraptured me with a burst through the sanctuary doors of Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Blytheville, Arkansas, in the mid-1970s. My father, a volunteer youth minister, directed the youth group in a Passion play for Easter weekend. I tagged along to rehearsal each night for weeks, appointing myself Dad’s de facto stage manager and memorizing everyone’s lines.

In a clever bit of staging, Dad had “Peter” and “John” throw open the back double doors and race up the sanctuary aisle crying, “He is alive!” “He has risen!” Having seen all those rehearsals, each time I looked back and waited for Terry Watson and Joel Blakely to make their entrance. At their first performance on Good Friday, Terry and Joel sprinted in on cue, running and shouting, and an audible gasp arose from the congregation. Two pews in front of me, Mrs. Greene clutched at her heart and inhaled sharply, eyes wide in shock before a small smile crept across her face. It was almost as if the Good Lord himself had come through those doors.

I was hooked.

With these living, breathing characters in our midst, the air inside the church felt charged. Terry and Joel disappeared, and Peter and John sprang up in their places. Though neither of us would have put it this way, Mrs. Greene and I discovered something in that sanctuary: Theater is incarnational, an experience of word becoming flesh right before our eyes. In that sense, it mirrors the very essence of the Christian faith. After all, Jesus not only used parables, stories, and dramatic reenactments to convey his message—his very presence was the message.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2007
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Stories as Spiritual Practice

Being a disciple takes imagination. As Jesus’ early followers discovered, understanding his stories, teachings, and parables required no small amount of mental agility. A camel traveling through the eye of a needle? The kingdom of God like a mustard seed? Lose your life to save it?

The simple settings and characters of Jesus’ stories helped direct listeners toward the truths that lay underneath. This alternate world Jesus came to reveal was so radical, so unlike what his listeners—then and now—understood to be real, that his stories, with their unexpected plot twists, surprising language, and elements of mystery, helped uncover what had previously been hidden.

Whether they’re collected in books or enacted in front of us, many stories still perform that function. Through language, setting, and characters, authors and playwrights entertain and educate us, puncture our illusions, and surprise us with new perspectives. They can help us see more clearly both the world we inhabit and the world Jesus calls us to help create.

In the realm of theater, for example, the actions of the bullhorn-carrying, pompadoured “Reverend Billy” might amuse or even offend us, but when this “preacher” and his Church of Stop Shopping urge us to turn away from the consuming ideology of our “temples of commerce” and avoid the “Shopocalypse,” it’s not hard to imagine Jesus saying “Amen.” Whether or not the actor behind Rev. Billy intends it, his performance invites us to imagine ourselves inside the biblical narrative, at the scene of Jesus’ rampage against the temple markets of his day. How would we have responded?

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Sojourners Magazine November 2007
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Judas, We Hardly Knew Ye

It’s been a summer of sizzle and burn—theologically speaking—here in these United States. First, we find out that Christianity’s arch-traitor, Judas, has his own “gospel.” Then Dan Brown, an inventive novelist of dubious literary skill, brings to the big screen his shocking revelation that organized religion is as fertile a ground for the action thriller as Michael Crichton’s world of scientific R&D and Tom Clancy’s black ops underworld. And, let’s face it, there is no religion more organized than my beloved Catholic Church.

Let’s start with The Da Vinci Code (book and movie). Dan Brown is a hack novelist who hit upon a winning formula (spoiler alert!)—that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene, that their blood line survived through the ages, and that a secret para-Vatican society was charged with keeping you and me from finding out. Like most spinners of tales, Brown took the shred ends of history, threw them all in a blender, slathered them on a page with protagonists, antagonists, a central mystery (plus excellent car chases), and served it up hot off the grill to a religiously charged public. The secular fundamentalists love it because it “proves” Christianity is a bunch of bunk. The Catholic fundamentalists love it because it boosts their direct mail returns as they wage their war against “creeping gnosticism” in this post-modern era.

My greater concern is for those who are unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. Psychologists recognize this phenomenon in children who falsely perceive television programs to be “real.” When adults are unable to make this distinction because their knowledge is not broad enough to put the fiction in a factual context and they rely heavily on personal experience and individual emotions not tested in community, the results historically have been disastrous.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2006
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Theater of the Soul

In the spring of 2000, a sold-out crowd of volunteers and union organizers, parents and students, hourly wage earners and salaried policy wonks, mohawks and buzz cuts, Latino and black, white and Asian, Christian and Jew packed a small auditorium in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood for the first official show of Washington, D.C.-based arts organization Sol & Soul. The show, titled ¡Ya!, began with the backstage sounds of shaking spray paint cans and drumming. Suddenly, a half dozen breakdancers took center stage as graffiti artists decorated the sets and musicians drummed in the background.

Within the first two minutes the audience members were on their feet, responding to the unexpected collaboration of visual art, sound, and movement. Or to seeing "street art" on the stage. Or to the adrenaline rush from the first appearance of Spoken Resistance, the youth and young adult performance group of Sol & Soul.

Sol & Soul has kept its fans and audience members on their toes—both through the challenge of its social justice mission and the fact that most shows are standing room only—for the past three years. The programs sponsored by Sol & Soul (usually pronounced and sometimes written with the "and" in Spanish: Sol y Soul) include Spoken Resistance; the solo work of the organization's artistic director, Quique Aviles; artistic residencies and performances by visiting artists; free creativity and art workshops for the community; and El Barrio Street Theater, Washington, D.C.'s only street theater project.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2002
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A Caged Bird Sings

Sojourners editor Jim Wallis and Karl Gaspar found each other in Geneva in the spring of 1983. They were attending an international ecumenical dialogue between Third World and First World theologians. "I meet a lot of people," says Wallis, "but sometimes something just connects with another human being. I remember taking long walks with Karl around the city, earnestly talking about our similar histories. We both grew up in the protest movements of the '60s. A real bond was formed between us which intensified when, a month later, Karl was disappeared by the Marcos regime."

Karl Gaspar spent 22 months in a Philippine prison, charged with political subversion. He was tortured and starved. Fellow political detainee Gus Miclat remembers when Karl disappeared. "Most of us felt numb and paralyzed by the fact that if they could do this to Karl, they could do it to anybody," Miclat said. But their fear turned to rage and then courage. For the first time, the People Power movement organized raids on the military "safehouses," rather than only enduring the military raids on their own houses. "In an ironic twist of roles," said Miclat, "in one safehouse we raided, a military thug demanded to see a search warrant."

Jim Wallis was one of thousands who tried to find Gaspar. Karl did eventually come to light—on Easter Sunday in Manila. "After I was surfaced by the military, I was told that the American consulate in Davao City was surprised about this one persistent caller from Washington, D.C.—a pastor who called every day to ask about me. Hearing that story from my family—they were the only ones who could see me in prison—made me very grateful for people like Jim, who showed tremendous interest regarding the life and death situations we faced during the time of Marcos."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2001
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Lights in the Fog

The year is 1995. Much of America, especially white America, is debating about Powell's aborted presidential candidacy and whether the march's message and messenger are interminably linked. Many other people are honestly seeking hope in the midst of despair as they pursue new approaches to cross the great color divide.

Within this context I viewed the Minneapolis-based Guthrie Theater production of Theodore Ward's Big White Fog. The play was directed by Lou Bellamy, artistic director of St. Paul's African-American theater company, Penumbra. (I attended when a friend called to say she had tickets and the flu. I got the tickets; she kept the flu.)

The year is 1938. The Works Administration Project, a government-sponsored, anti-Depression program to ensure the development of the arts in lean times, invited Theodore Ward, a struggling young playwright, to draft a play. Ward believed that a play showing the "Negro condition" would be his best offering.

For more than 50 years, Ward's Big White Fog was not performed anywhere in this country. The play was both challenging and controversial. Its socialist tendencies, its large cast (as it was designed to put performers back to work during the Depression), and its portrayal of internecine black community issues (including skin tones, even before Spike Lee's School Daze) have made it a challenge for any theater to produce. But 1995 was a year to bring forward controversial debates within the African-American community.

The year is 1922. The Mason family is filled with strong personalities. Victor (Jonathan Earl Peck), the patriarch, is a disciple of Marcus Garvey, the charismatic Jamaican who formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914. Like Garvey, Victor believes that the best future for American blacks is to make the migration back to Africa, forming a new country of displaced Africans.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1996
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