Life Is a Mystery, in Church

Young Jean Lee’s hour-long play at Crowded Fire Theater satirizes a thunderously empty mode of religiosity from the pulpit.

Reverend José addresses the crowd at Church. (from L-R) Lawrence Radecker, Jordan María Don, Nkechi Emeruwa. Photo by Hillary Goidell

Christian rock, like too much alcohol, can be an effective emetic.

During one segment of Young Jean Lee’s semi-heretical play Church (through Oct. 6, at Crowded Fire Theater), a Christian-rock song accompanies a dance number that lasts for an eternity. One audience member felt that the smug, generic praise for someone named Jesus, combined with the blandest guitar riffs known to mankind, stimulated an internal scream worthy of a B-movie heroine. Although the play lasts just over an hour, that song-and-dance routine, like something out of an Amy Grant video, seemed to double the length of the evening. Mercifully, gospel music was incorporated in the open and close, and to much better effect.

Church is Lee’s takedown of and testimonial to the powerful fictions and pseudo-facts told in houses of worship on Sunday mornings. Throughout the play, she posits a duality: On the one hand, living among the faithful provides a sense of peace and a sense that all is well in the universe because the giant hand of God cradles you and your list of woes. On the other hand, that sense of peace you display is merely performative, meant only for proselytizing. You may say the phrase “Live and let live,” but not a fiber in your being believes it. For Lee, religious words are, at best, akin to fairy tales and at worst, nonsense.

To set the mood for an actual church service as patrons enter the theater, gospel songs play on the speakers. When the music stops, the audience is stranded in a dark auditorium as Reverend José (Lawrence Radecker) begins to berate us. In an all-knowing, all-seeing tone, he says, “All of you, you failures and successes and quitters, are deluded babies who believe that the world has yet to recognize your true greatness, when in fact you are a hanging piece of meat deteriorating towards sickness and death!” This is the fire-and-brimstone version of Jonathan Edwards-esque Scripture that the playwright alters and updates for a modern, secular audience.

Some people snorted when the reverend’s insults gathered in speed and malice: “You sit there like pigs, stuffed fat with self-interest and anxiety. You are a spiritual black hole!” After a long day at work, others thought, “Is being scolded by a stranger the best way to contemplate my relationship with God?” With this monologue, Lee commits an act of transposition. She replicates the tone and cadence of a typical sermon, but strips the veneer of good will from the words themselves. The playwright leaves you dumbfounded, fearful, and on edge.

Nonsense enters the stage as the other reverends deliver their personal testimonials to convince you of their profound and meaningful relationships with God. Reverend Alison (Alison Whismore) tells the story of her addictions to sex and drugs in a graphic but incoherent way. Her logic is flawed and skips forward abruptly like someone lifting the needle on a scratched record. She wants to let us know that the woman we see before us is reformed and happy, all thanks to her newfound faith. Lee doesn’t begrudge her improved circumstances. There’s something genuine that comes through in Alison’s story. The problematic part is that she’s not telling the story for its own sake. It’s become an aggressive, patronizing act that’s meant to encourage the listener’s own religious conversion.

When Reverend José returns to the stage to tell a parable, Lee satirizes a particular mode of biblical storytelling. He talks about a fish and a bird who converse about their respective domains. The fish asks the bird why he never swims in the water. The bird replies that it is, literally and figuratively, beneath him. And then the fish suggests that flying under a tree branch is the same thing. End of story. It’s an absurd lesson with a punchline devoid of meaning — which seems to be the point. You can project as much or as little as you’re able onto stories like these. Some people will find deep meanings in them, while others will remain unmoved.

As an apologia for the many jabs at zealotry, Church closes with a choir marching in formation as they take the stage. They don’t just sing “Ain’t Got Time to Die”; they belt it through the rafters. It’s a palate-cleanser and a magic trick like turning water into wine. Lee spends an hour putting hypocrisy and insincerity on display and then shows us what church should feel like but seldom does: genuine, raw, and pure.    

Churchthrough Oct. 6, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St, $15-$35, 415-523-0034 or crowdedfire.org

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