My great thanks to all who attended our town meeting about Church last Sunday, and who have written to us with their varied comments on this blog and elsewhere. Once again you have demonstrated you are the the most intellectually diverse group in town,and what's more, you are a group that can actually tallk to each other. The play was certainly a one of a kind experience, unique in our history.
Below I offer a summary of my own comments and thoughts about the production, for those of you still interested and who were not able to attend last Sunday's meeting. Again, thanks to everyone who shared.
Perhaps now would be a good time to explain why I chose to stage CHURCH here. I had heard of Young Jean Lee, of course--her reputation is considerable across the frontiers of experimental theatre, where few of our patrons have ever gone. So I read this play, and I liked it immediately, and I still do. It was like nothing else I had read or seen (and you may have no idea how rare this is). I liked that it directly addressed one of today’s taboo subjects--- the religious experience. I say taboo because the world we live is divided between believers and non-believers, with an infinite number of subdivisions. As a result we have a culture of tolerance which amounts mostly to not talking about religion to each other unless we are with people who think pretty much the way we do. There is good reason for this. Belief (and unbelief is a kind of belief too) is strong, personal and if not intractable is usually subject to only very gradual change--the recovery, loss, or change of faith. CHURCH violates all these tacitly accepted boundaries by subjecting its audience, none of whom are devout members of its particular congregation, to an impassioned and peculiar hour of ministry. It acts like it’s a church service, but it isn’t--it’s a play being performed in a theater which looks like it could be a church, and the ministers are not preaching to a group of believers with a common history of worship or a shared faith. Indeed, the play was written mostly to preach, as the playwright herself told us, largely to an audience of un-believers, which is yet another reason why some of the faithful find its messages irrelevant or misguided.
Is CHURCH a parody of evangelical church preaching? When one of the ministers starts telling us, very seriously, a story of mummies who excrete cotton balls, we might think so. When another talks about waking up after a drug trip with a swastika on her forehead and one leg shaved, you might think so. When another asks for help in her struggle to conquer her obsession with self-help books, yes, you might think so. I mean this testimony is weird and it’s funny--chances are good you are likely to laugh more and for different reasons than you do in actual church. Unless, of course, you are offended.
But these ministers also have something to say. The Reverend Jose (who is not Latino) begins with a story of a man whose “brain swam around in a fishbowl of worry.” How’s that for an image of our anxiety? His exposure of the way we delude ourselves is often on target: “the fight between good and evil is a spectator sport. All you have to do to be a hero is root for the right side. If injustice makes you angry and suffering makes you sad, then you can be a good person without ever having to leave your couch.” The common message these ministers share is that sin is denial and self-absorption, and surely this is a message for our times. The audience laughs when a preacher in the audience paints a picture of the assembled audience trapped on “the hamster wheel” of their repetitive lives. But the portrait is funny because it is also accurate. The preachers invite us into an alternative world of service, humility and faith-- a surrender into mystery and relief and love. Is this so different from the message repeated every Sunday all over Colorado Springs?
Of course sometimes these good reverends do talk a little crazy. But the wild nonsense spiraling from Young Jean Lee’s lectern can be astonishingly, absurdly, vivid--it’s almost as good as King Lear, and far more interesting than many of the heartwarming stories smoothly polished for Sunday sermons. And just when you think these preachers have become completely unmoored they are likely to say something direct and revelatory. Jose gives us his bizarre parable of the mummies, and then acknowledges that his stories, like those in the Bible, might look like unbelievable magic. And of course this is true, because many Bible stories told anywhere else do look just like unbelievable magic stories (and then the wizard turned the stones into bread . . . ). But then Jose says, “the truth is that you are magic. The blood pumping through your veins, the thoughts pumping through your head, are all magic, and even the most brilliant scientists agree that most things about us are a mystery.” He invites us to consider the existence of magic at the deepest level, and this doesn’t sound so crazy anymore. It sounds like the truth. But just when you realize Jose is actually on to something, as I do at this moment, there he goes again, warning us against the poisons of caffeine and good company and the excessive love of our children.
CHURCH oscillates between theater and religious service, between parody and sincerity, between direct statement and surreal poetry, between excoriation and embrace, between sanity and wild irrationality. It never settles down for long to become one fixed entity. It seems to me that those all too ready to say exactly what this play is will almost certainly shrink the play to something less than it is. For many this is frustrating. We are used to plays that have firm destinations, that arrive, that clear up the mess they have made. The Denver Post review embodies such frustrations--after tracking the play’s shifts and vicissitudes, John Moore complains that the genuinely soul-lifting finale leaves everything unsettled and that THEATREWORKS has failed to make the play’s “ultimate intent” more obvious. But, obviously, this playwright’s intent and particular achievement is not to preach so directly. In fact, it is not to preach at all, but to re-present salient manifestations (the stories, the testimony, the confessions, the messages, the moving music, the joy, the long path to redemption) of Christianity, and then leave the rest to us. Young Jean told me that when the play was performed in New York, before an audience of mostly young atheists, the laughter at first was loud, but that many were weeping by the end. The play had opened a surprising door to the wonder of faith. I too laughed a lot, and I too was deeply moved at the end, by the women singing, by Jose’s final parable, and by the extraordinary final coup de theatre. Some of our audience have treated the surprise appearance of a large gospel choir as a separate event--but it is actually a final vision and incarnation of faith. In Joe’s last parable he tells the story of Joanne, a girl who works at a nursing home with very little reward for her dedication--finally she goes home to her dingy apartment and lies down and has a vision, and the last thing she sees are the faithful coming over the hill, and then she sees Jesus, “and the delight she knew thereafter is not ours to comprehend until death. Hallelujah.” And it is then that, for the first time, Church becomes a visionary space because in our theater the faithful actually do come over the hill, and down into the theatre, radiant with song. The choir is heaven. Or so it seemed and felt to me. And I too wept.
Obviously everyone did not feel the way I did--some have left the show elated, some baffled, some disturbed and some offended. Actually, I can’t think of a wider range of responses to any show in our history.
I don’t enjoy seeing good friends of ours upset by what we present. No doubt I should have known better--I’m learning that what happens in an avant-garde theater in New York is not necessarily what happens in Colorado Springs. Many of our audience come with entirely different attitudes and backgrounds. Even so, I do have a prayer request. A prayer request, as one of the good reverends explains, is “basically just a request that everyone here pray for some issue you’re struggling with.” And the request I have is, as we all struggle with the challenges of CHURCH, is to listen to this remarkable work as well as to judge it.
My thanks to all who have attended, who have listened, who have spoken, and who have participated in the CHURCH of Young Jean Lee.