Evangelization Through Drama

For readers who don’t know me, over the past several years and through the influence of a friend, I have developed an interest in the idea of evangelization by example, and the best examples are dramatic. Most of our real lives aren’t apparently dramatic, or we’re too modest to call attention to ourselves, so this leaves us with drama: thus evangelization through drama. On Gaudete Sunday and the following Monday, I went to see three plays; call it research.

Godspell

Godspell PosterI remember the song Day by Day being played at Holy Mass when I was about 13 and living in the Browsnburg, Indiana. Compared to some of the music used today, it isn’t too bad.  Back then I was too young to know how cool the liturgists thought it was that a top 40 hit could be played at Holy Mass. I was too young to know what a liturgist was. Someone told me the song  came from something called Godspell, but I never saw the play.  I corrected this omission from my education by seeing  Mustard Seed Theater’s production.

Godspell’s script is the parables of Jesus Christ and many of the song lyrics come from the Episcopal Hymnal. My understanding is that the show is staged in a variety of ways – the playwright doesn’t specify a particular setting. I am also given to understand that in most productions the story of each parable is acted out by the chorus, who along the way mark themselves somehow as they become followers of Jesus. In the original production, this is done with makeup: as each cast member becomes a fool for Christ, he applies clown makeup. In other productions (I’m told) they might wear some bit of distinctive clothing. The Church is growing before your eyes.

These ideas are carried through in the Mustard Seed production, but there’s a twist. There are a couple of twists, actually. Deanna Jent is the Artistic Director of Mustard Seed, and she is indeed artistic. So artistic that she managed to take a lightweight, happy-clappy script that might be a nice experience for eighth graders and give it enough depth to talk about with high school seniors without ruining it for the 12 year olds or putting-off their properly pious parents (or grandparents) with (say) clown makeup.  All this was done with a few smart updates, with staging, and choreography.

God wants you to vote Republican!A Trash Can is a Cynical Ballot Box
God wants you to vote Democratic!

Ms. Jent set the play on a city street, in an obviously poor neighborhood. There’s a homeless woman living underneath an overhang, the sounds of traffic. Upstage center is a music store and (this being a musical) provides an excuse for the piano player to be on stage. A vandal casually paints graffiti on the walls. People are ignoring each other, suspicious of each other. They’re all singing different songs, probably from different hymnals. It is a cacophony. The abuse of God and what He might want are apparent. So is cynicism and a longing for something better. Sound familiar? It isn’t 1971, it is right now. A young man in a short-sleeved white shirt with a button down collar appears on the scene, handing out bottles of water to strangers. If he had a skinny black necktie, he’d look like the Mormon missionaries who show up at my door once in awhile. He bursts into song: Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord. John the Baptist? OK. Soon thereafter our Lord Jesus Christ appears, John baptizes Him, and we’re into the Gospel. You know the rest of the story.
One big message of Godspell is the formation of community. Instead using makeup or distinctive clothing, what Ms. Jent did to symbolize the consolidation of the Christians is get the characters to dance more in sync. This preserves the characters as individual persons while at the same time shows they’re part of something larger than themselves. They move from being hearers of the Word to being doers of the Word, symbolized by joining in the telling of the parables. They don’t wear a uniform, they all join in the task of evangelization.

The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them.

Grace from Godspell played by Amy LouiThe players of the chorus don’t have names, but as the play unfolds you recognize the characters: Mary Magdalene, the Good Samaritan, and so on. But in the Mustard Seed production, there is one character who is given a name: Grace. Her name is spray painted on the wall above her where she’s sleeping or tying her shoes or fooling with her hair: you might miss it: “Grace’s Place”. Grace is a crazy homeless woman with a dirty face and shabby clothes. She’s clearly been hurt, she’s distrustful, poor, an outcast. Maybe sick. That’s enough to make anybody crazy. But she receives John’s baptism and when Jesus appears on the scene, he draws her out. Or rather, draws her in. The way the direction was done we see Grace join the other followers of Jesus, but she’s on the periphery, not in the center. She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t interact much. But she’s there for the telling of all the stories. And eventually she’s a full member, of course. With a smile.

Another very nice bit of stagecraft in this production: the telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan was done in Spanish. The parable is being acted out though, and so even though I don’t understand Spanish, I knew exactly which parable it was. This I think points out that the Gospel is universal, that it works in any language.

Typically I think Mustard Seed productions work for college age on up.  Godspell is lightweight and obvious compared to their normal shows; it seems they produced a play for us to bring our nieces and grandkids to. It was a very high energy introduction to live theater that might, just might, prove to kids that the Bible doesn’t have to be boring and there might be better sorts of entertainment than video games, at least once in awhile. It provides a great deal to talk about on a couple of levels: as a play, and as the Gospel.

 

Vianney

Leonardo Defillipis as The DevilWe announced that St. Luke’s Productions show Vianney would be performed twice in St. Louis. I caught the performance at St. Angela Merici, the parish of Credo’s former Spiritual Adviser, Fr. Thomas Keller (who is doing well and seems very happy in his role). The show is a hagiography of St. John Vianney, and is quite affecting. I know for sure it inspired at least one trip to the confessional.

Vianney was sure he had a vocation, but felt himself totally inadequate in a “technical” way to be a priest (couldn’t learn Latin, had trouble with the finer points of moral theology, was the son of a farmer or shepherd — probably spoke French badly, this kind of thing). Every professor at the seminary save one thought the same thing. He was laughed at by classmates for being so stupid. The devil used these feelings of his to try to get him to quit his vocation at every step along the path of his life.

Vianney is finally ordained and sent to a place where “he can’t do too much damage”. But it turns out the finer points of moral theology aren’t going to matter there for a very, very long time; where the people had probably never seen a zealous priest, and had all but forgotten the faith. His bad French probably let him fit in OK with the poor, rural folk, but they expected/wanted a more refined priest with a better appreciation for comfortable furniture and fine food who would live among them and be nice — which means he wouldn’t bother their consciences. What they actually got was a holy priest: Vianney. Vianney got more attacks from the devil, but he got many consolations as well. This had to be what kept him going. Eventually he formed a model parish and had some 20,000 people a year coming to a little rural town to hear him preach and go to him for confession. The bishop refused to let him retire. And he became a great saint.

I’m pretty sure just about every word from Vianney-the-character’s mouth came directly from Vianney the man (sermons, letters, diaries, whatever). This is a one-man show, produced with lights and sound.  The disembodied crowd voices characters (“Vianney is too dumb! Vianney is too strict! Vianney is …”) were really good though. Effective stuff. I think Defillipis makes Vianney too “weepy”. Yes, he’s trying to make the saint’s internal emotional state apparent to us, but the way he voices Vianney makes him seem “weaker” than his vigorous actions suggest; it even contradicts his actions in a way, and also contradicts his obvious sense of humor. And it makes him harder to understand than a more normal, less overwrought speaking voice would be. But the PHYSICAL work was great. We could see Vianney getting older, slower, more tired, weaker all the way through the production. I am amazed at the costume changes and the way Defillipis shifts from character to character. Of course, when a show runs as many performances as Vianney has, the actor can refine his acting quite a lot.

This show ought to come back to St. Louis and play a tour in the bigger parishes and at least at the Archdiocesan high schools. The faithful will be challenged to go back to confession and if you’re a priest watching this show…. well… St. John Vianney is held up by  the Church as the model parish priest. If you are in a position to help this happen, please get in touch with us at Credo and let’s see about it.

Jesus Hopped the A Train

Angel and Lucis in the Exercise PenCan good catechesis be R-rated?

There is a new theater company in St. Louis producing plays touching on religion, justice and ethics — R-S Theatrics.  Associate Artistic Director, Christina Rios says “We’re sort of the R-rated version of Mustard Seed”. This is about right. They produce shows that have never been professionally staged in St. Louis before, so they’re new and the dialog style is going to be more realistic or natural than stagey. This has certain implications. Plus they’re looking for plays that might attract a young, hip audience and make them think, so there’s the subject matter.

Jesus Hopped the A Train is mostly a good script with a great deal to talk about with any group of young adults. In this show a young man (Angel Cruz) is arrested on the charge of murder, but since he didn’t mean to kill the man he shot (as evidenced by the area of anatomy wounded by the bullet) he doesn’t think he’s guilty. In fact, since he was trying to rescue a friend from the clutches of a Moon-like cult leader, he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong at all. His public defender even thinks she can get him off. In the cell next door is an older prisoner (Lucis Jenkins) who has taken responsibility for his crimes in spite of the circumstances of his life, has found God, but is none the less fighting extradition to Florida where he’d face a sentence of death. He makes Angel’s conversion a personal project.

There are several reviews of this production around (you can Google them if you want), and I won’t say they’re wrong. R-S Theatrics style is minimalist, which means all the focus is on the words of the script with the barest hints of physical context. And although I agree with a couple of reviewers who complained about very minimal movement in the performance space (there really isn’t a stage) the performances (especially Terell Randall’s performance as Lucis Jenkins) were so powerful that I personally didn’t notice a static feel – the script itself is dynamic and if you’re interested in the ideas, the actors hold your attention. I have a bigger complaint for the playwright than I have for the director.

For young adults (and here I’ll say college age to about 35) this is ten times a better show than Godspell. It is quite explicitly Christian, even Catholic. But if I tell a pastor, mom or DRE  “I think we should organize an outing to a play where questions of guilt and innocence, retribution, atonement, friendship, justice, law, responsibility, the limits of capacity for free will, and moral thoughtlessness not to mention youthful stupidity and religious awakening are all laid bare in a thoroughly Christian framework, but the main characters are prisoners and talk like you might expect prisoners to talk” what would they say? I say didactic drama is more powerful than catechism paragraphs, and drama has to be dramatic. Which means it has to be a close-enough reflection of reality to be recognized. I am afraid that those good Christian catechists will only hear the foul language their kids are more than familiar with anyway, and will miss the point, which is why we have so much bad Christian art. Flannery O’Connor said as much 50 years ago in this essay, which I hope you’ll read.

 

So Why All This?

We all complain that nothing good ever comes from Hollywood. This isn’t quite true, but it is often enough that I won’t quibble. Movies are great, probably the most complex of all art forms, and can be used to good effect. But live theater is much more immediate and personal than a movie is. Those people right there are performing this right now for me! That’s the feeling here. And that’s what I think makes theater better than movies to catechize. Plus you don’t need 3-D glasses.We are fortunate in St. Louis to have  Mustard Seed Theater, R-S Theatrics (and of course St. Louis Shakespeare).

And it is all being ignored. Shakespeare’s plays are shot through with great Catholic theology. St. Louis Shakespeare performs at the Grandel Theater; it seats perhaps 275. At most performances, there are around 50 people there. R-S Theatrics sets up about 50 seats and they’re not filled. Mustard Seed’s theater at Fontbonne seats about a hundred, and while this or that performance might sell out, most seem to be around half full. When Theater of the Word attempted to stage a season of shows at the Rigali Center, they experienced the same thing and couldn’t continue. Is it really too expensive to spend $2,000 to bring a Theater of the Word or a St. Luke Productions performance to a high school or a parish? Really? How much do we spend on football for 50 kids to play and the rest to watch?

I think we can and should do better than this. If we want to encourage young Catholics and Mere Christians to use the performing arts to re-evangelize the culture, they must be supported and encouraged. There is no better way to do that than by going to see their shows.

Tom Leith

Read Previous

New Translation of the Roman Missal

Read Next

Timothy Dolan to be Created Cardinal

3 Comments

  • > I have a bigger complaint for the playwright than I have for the director.

    christina rios kelley I suppose I should clarify this. If I ever learn to edit myself I’ll have less of this to do. The way we learn about Lucis’ background is that he just comes out and tells us he’s schizophrenic and he got beaten a kid and had other common excuses for criminal behavior, but his point is he’s taken responsibility anyway. Fine. The complaint I have is that the character throws all this out in a kind of speech. I think it is a little cheap. Or maybe it is old-fashioned, and this is supposedly a modern, realistic play. In a way the speech isn’t necessary: we know from the way he talks Lucis has had a disadvantaged background and from his own description of his crimes he’s probably got mental difficulties. But if the playwright wanted to make sure this point isn’t missed, would be better to develop this bit of knowledge dramatically (like have a guard tell him its time for his meds or whatever). But my main point wasn’t to review the technical merits of the script or the staging: it is to ask about whether material like this has a place in catechesis and what place that might be. Anyhow, a big Thank You to R-S Theatrics and the cast for the production.

  • The Flannery O’Connor passage you refer to should be sent to every Catholic prude in America, if only there were a mailing list available.

    With my own ears I have heard a condemnation of Wise Blood (the film) because one of the characters is wearing only a slip in one of the scenes. And there’s no telling what would happen if the movie Juno were to be screened for some youth group, or the novels of Ron Hansen to be praised by some DRE, or the Canterbury Tales………..

    B. Truckey

  • I’d love to have articles on literacy and culture — I think a new awareness of and appreciation for literary heritage is sorely needed. @montic69

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *