Director Amy Rummenie remembers she was “scared out of my wits” as her Walking Shadow Theatre Company opened a production of “The Christians” last spring. After all, playwright Lucas Hnath’s deeply personal and religious play held the potential to offend audiences on both ends of the spectrum.
“I remember people coming to that play saying, ‘I’m nervous that I’m going to be preached at,’ and others said, ‘I’m nervous that my beliefs are going to be made fun of,’ ” Rummenie said.The subject of religion can cause that kind of anxiety. Beliefs and ideologies strike close to our personal identity, particularly when it comes to how we are perceived by others. As Sarah Bellamy, Penumbra Theatre’s co-artistic director, aptly put it, “there is a lot of drama when we talk about religion.”
Rummenie’s fears were allayed as Walking Shadow’s staging respected the earnest sincerity of a faith community while also wrestling with the troublesome ambiguity of dogma. The play is about the conservative pastor of a megachurch who has come to question a central tenet of orthodox Christian doctrine — that heaven is reserved only for those who profess the belief that Jesus Christ died for our sins. It was a penetrating juxtaposition of credal belief and real-life experience. Given the stakes, Rummenie was right to be nervous about making a misstep.
“The Christians” is among a recent flurry of plays on Twin Cities area stages that deal with religion. The Jungle just opened “The Oldest Boy,” Sarah Ruhl’s story of a boy who is seen by Tibetan Buddhist monks as a reincarnated lama. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company staged a sharp analysis of the divide in religious and cultural understandings of the faith in “Bad Jews” this spring.
In “Disgraced,” which played at the Guthrie this summer, playwright Ayad Akhtar created a searing portrait of a Muslim man whose complex relationship with his primal, cultural identity is his undoing. In the Jungle’s recent “Bars and Measures,” Islam became more of a political football, but it was religion that redeemed and then condemned an individual who had made bad choices.
“The arts affect our souls in a unique way,” said Jewish Theatre artistic director Barbara Brooks, speaking about the powerful way that theater can manifest a spiritual subject.
Partners in spiritual experience
Bellamy notes that theatrical forms were used centuries before the Greeks began to shape the forms of Western drama. In both cases, performance was a form of religious ritual.
“As long as people have sat around a fire and told stories, taken on characters, wore masks and sang songs,” Bellamy said, theater has been an indispensable means of beseeching the divine and exploring the existential questions of being.
Bellamy is a visiting professor at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, where she lectures prospective church leaders on using theater as a tool in galvanizing a community.
After all, beyond the obvious similarities of ritual proclamation, sacred dance, the spoken word and music, faith communities and theater aspire to a common goal: to gather people in a room, focus their attention on a performance and hope that the experience conveys a measure of spiritual edification.
“Theater and religion come from the same place,” Bellamy said. “At UTS, I’m seeking opportunities to move the two together as a ritual.”
Is it spiritual or cultural?
Brooks’ company staged “Bad Jews,” a play by Joshua Harmon that puts two cousins at each other’s throats over who has the right to claim their grandfather’s necklace, a religious talisman.
Daphna argues that her piety and observance qualify her. Family tradition is the basis of Liam’s claim. He is the oldest male grandchild, and — just as his grandfather had done with their grandmother — he wants to present the necklace to his fiancée in a wedding proposal.
The play is a fierce dialogue of crunchy arguments spinning on whether religion is strictly a matter of belief and spiritual practice — something to be jealously guarded — or a tradition and heritage handed down over centuries.
“We chose the play because it presented a struggle that contemporary Jews are having,” Brooks said. “It’s been going on since the 1920s, when Jewish theater looked at what it meant to be Jewish in a time when intermarriage raised the question of keeping our religion and culture strong and present.”
Cultural identity is also at the heart of “Disgraced,” a devastating portrait of a Muslim man who thinks he has thoroughly assimilated into America’s upper class.
Through a series of events, the character Amir finds himself in a position where he has to stand up for the religious background he has fought so hard to bury deep in his soul. Ultimately, the very American society that he had sought as his salvation from Islam turns on him. Amir ends up despising what he is, the religious culture from whence he came and the secular nation that has rejected him.
Life and death matters
Both “Bad Jews” and “Disgraced” illustrate the power of theater as an artistic form that borrows from religion. Drama is a piece of art in real time, in real space, with real human bodies, minds, emotions and intellects. It is three-dimensional, living and breathing.
“Theater is in its own way a spiritual practice,” said Sarah Rasmussen, director of “The Oldest Boy” at the Jungle. “I am drawn to writers whose drama is not nailed down and who balance the mysteries of being human.”
Ruhl’s play is balanced on spiritual, cultural and personal themes. A woman (played by Christina Baldwin) must decide whether to let her 3-year-old son travel to India and begin training as a lama. Monks are convinced that the youngster is the reincarnation of an earlier teacher and that time is wasting if he does not grasp his destiny.
The mother, born Catholic and now a spiritual quester, faces a piercing dilemma: When (and in this case, why) does a parent let go? This child is to her more than a lama. He is her baby.
“It’s really a human question: How do we love things and let them go when it’s their time?” Rasmussen said.
Those “things” could be other people, places, customs, experiences, even life itself. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” has Emily Gibbs agonizing from the great beyond, “Does anyone realize life while they live it?”
And the tramps in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” — are they engaged in a pointless march toward the grave, or are they survivors who find meaning in their relationship? Even Arthur Miller’s “The Death of a Salesman,” staged this fall at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, is a vision of death and purpose through the secular religion of the American dream.
Is it church or theater?
Bellamy’s Penumbra company soon will stage “Black Nativity,” the Langston Hughes play that uses the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth as its central text. The production has shifted in form and style in countless ways, but in its most elemental form, it is a proclamation of a story that has profoundly shaped Western culture and spiritual belief.
Penumbra has performed “Black Nativity” for decades, just as the Guthrie has staged “A Christmas Carol” since the mid-1970s. In both cases, the ritual of simply going to the theater becomes a portal into memory — which is personal and universal, and religious in the sense that it helps to order our lives. It connects us to previous generations and offers us an experience to transmit to new generations.
“ ‘Black Nativity’ connects these forms [religion and theater] in terms of ritual,” Bellamy said. “It brings families together. The power of the Nativity story and of theater to gather community really blurs the lines. It feels like church.”
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.