by Jonathan Mandell
“Art and religion share the psychological state of transportation—being transported. We all love being taken out of ourselves, temporarily.” – Jonathan Haidt, NYU professor, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
So why in fields that are both devoted to awe and transport, does the norm seem to be an unspoken separation between church and stage?
Could this be exactly because of their similarities? Could the theater offer to both theater artists and theatergoers a kind of substitute for the awe they felt as children towards a religion that they no longer can as readily accept intellectually or morally?
That’s how Scottish theater critic Mark Fisher sees it: “There are a lot of ex-observant artists seeking to find the equivalent sensations. But drama thrives on ambiguity.”
A good example may be playwright Marsha Norman, who in a recent interview, talked at length about her faith: She grew up “trapped in an Evangelical hotspot” and remains greatly influenced by Bible stories, but now embraces a “personal faith” that seems to have no room for organized religion. “I’m not concerned with is there a God or isn’t there a God, but I’m concerned with the trials people face and how they get through them.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a person who works in the theater is less likely (or more likely) to be religious than the average person in their community. What’s intriguing is not so much the individuals’ private beliefs, but the way religion plays out publicly on New York stages.
Ridiculing Religion, Worshipping Theater
The Book of Mormon, which focuses on two young Mormon’s mission to Africa, famously mocks organized religion as a whole, and singles out the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints, highlighting the church’s past history of racism, and what the musical’s creative team see as its odd beliefs.
Almost four years after it opened, this musical remains one of the hottest tickets on Broadway, while more faith-affirming shows have flopped miserably—one thinks of Alan Menken’s Leap of Faith, or Scandalous, Kathie Lee Gifford’s ode to evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
But, some will protest, The Book of Mormon is funny, and tuneful, and smart about musical theater, while Scandalous was…not. So it may be a coincidence. But it may not be a complete stretch to point out, as I did in my original review, that The Book of Mormon is “worshipping at the altar of The Great White Way”—borrowing, ribbing, and paying homage to such landmark Broadway musicals as The King and I and The Lion King, with The Music Man and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying thrown in. When at the end, the musical acknowledges in a clever way the human need for the spiritual, audiences can be forgiven for getting the message that it’s musical theater that can supply it.
In the bluntly provocative Disgraced, playwright Ayad Akhtar examines his sophisticated New York characters’ varying reactions to Islam, slyly putting much of the anti-Islamic sentiment in Amir, the son of Pakistani immigrants, who grew up Muslim and now sees himself as an assimilated affluent attorney living on the Upper East Side with his blonde American wife, Emily. The defense of Islam rests largely with Emily (who’s a Christian), a painter inspired by Islamic art, as well as with Isaac, Emily’s (Jewish) art dealer, who makes a distinction between Islam and what he calls Islamo-fascism.
If the issues here are primarily political, Amir directly attacks the religion itself, citing heinous passages in the Koran.
Amir does not seem to serve as a straightforward mouthpiece for the author, since the character’s actions and attitudes are confused and self-contradictory, at one point admitting to feeling pride at the events of September 11th.
“You’re an American,” says Jory, Isaac’s (African American) wife. “It’s tribal, Jor. It is in the bones,” Amir answers. “You have no idea how I was brought up. You have to work real hard to root that shit out.”
The main character has no such hostility to her religion in Grand Concourse, a play by Heidi Schreck that was at Playwrights Horizons last month, though she ultimately engages in a losing struggle with it. Sister Shelley, a nun in charge of a soup kitchen in the Bronx, eschews a nun’s habit and is so unsure of her faith that she turns on the timer to the microwave to force herself to pray for a set number of minutes per day. Emma, a college dropout, visits the kitchen, seeking guidance and offering to help out with cooking—talk to a priest, Shelly advises.
Much of the action of the play involves the interaction of Emma with Shelley and other members of the small family that has developed in the soup kitchen, a single sometimes-homeless customer named Frog, and the janitor and security guard Oscar. Emma turns out to be unreliable to the point of being reckless, and she neglects to take care of Shelley’s cat while the nun visits her dying father in California, with disastrous consequences.
The result is that Shelley quits being a nun. “It was a decision I would have come to, eventually, though your actions were clarifying,” Shelley tells Emma. Perhaps I missed some cues, but they weren’t clarifying to me—her decision seems mysterious, but perhaps that’s the point?
Suspension of Disbelief (Commencement of Belief)
Although they both deal with Catholic characters, Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho at the Signature Theatre, offers an almost complete contrast to Grand Concourse. The play is based on the true story of three church schoolgirls in Rwanda in the 1980s who reported seeing an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The Church eventually affirmed the authenticity of this miracle, determining that the Virgin Mary had visited the girls to warn them of the bloodshed to come; Kibeho was one of the sites of the genocide that occurred in 1994. While director Kip Fagan’s production of Grand Concourse was literal and precise, down to the chopped carrots and the boiling pot of soup, in Our Lady of Kibeho Michael Greif presents an impressionistic and mystical world, with stage effects—dark dramatic lighting, swirling video projections, beds lifting in the air—intended to induce a sense of the miraculous and of spiritual wonder.
In this way, it bears greatest resemblance to The Oldest Boy by Sarah Ruhl at Lincoln Center, which is reportedly also inspired by a true story: An American mother who has married an immigrant Tibetan chef, is visited one day by two Buddhist monks. They tell her that her three-year-old son is the reincarnation of a revered Tibetan Lama, and they ask her whether she would be willing to give him up so that he can be raised in a monastery in India.
As with Our Lady of Kibeho, the stagecraft of The Oldest Boy is breathtaking. The backdrop of sunsets, the use of puppetry (the reincarnated toddler is portrayed by a marionette), the ornate costumes, and the gentle music instill a sense of awe and calm, and add up to a nearly hypnotic effect.
The miracles in The Oldest Boy and Our Lady of Kibeho are not up for debate or much interpretation—the audience is directly presented various demonstrations of the truth of the Kibeho students’ visions and of the Tibetan-American boy’s reincarnation. To me, the miraculous moments felt force-fed, as if I had stayed too long at a church (or temple) to which I do not belong. Let me admit that this was my limitation as a theatergoer.
I have no evidence that either playwright was directly proselytizing for their faith (I doubt that they even share the religion of their characters), and many others were capable of a suspension of disbelief; Our Lady of Kibeho made a couple of critics’ top 10 lists for 2014.
Jonathan Mandell, a proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association has written about the theater for a range of publications, including Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times,Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com. He currently blogs at New York Theater and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater. This post originally appeared on HowlRound.com