Shotgun Players Try Lifting ‘Spirits’

The Berkeley company opens 2021 with a quiet drama about literally trying to hear God during a pandemic.

“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath
For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”
– James 1:19-20 (KJV)

That verse is spoken by Pastor Gabriella (Vero Maynez), the lead of Noelle Viñas’ Feel the Spirit. The pastor uses the quote during her online bible study, invoking it as a segue into telling her flock how disheartening it is for “all manner of people to appropriate the language of Christianity” for their own means. Given that she’s the openly gay preacher for a primarily gray-haired congregation during the MAGA era, it isn’t too hard to read between the lines.

It’s late-March 2020 and Gabriella is only a few months into her new position at Fairfield Christ Church. She’d planned for her first year at the supposedly-progressive church to go smoothly. But as the old Yiddish saying goes, “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht (Men plan, God laughs)”. As we follow Gabriella through the Summer of COVID, one can easily imagine the phrase popping into her head once or twice.

It’s oddly appropriate that Shotgun Players would commission a church-based play for their first 2021 production. After all, the Ashby Stage, where the company usually performs, was once a functioning church. This show isn’t performed there, but it reminds one of how theaters, like most houses of worship, have had to close their doors due to the pandemic. Unlike those houses of worship, however, the majority of the world’s theaters have remained shut for the better part of a year. 

The central conflict in the play is between the more scientifically-minded Gabriella who wants to close the church during the pandemic, and her set-in-their-ways congregation who are gladly willing to risk infection for the sake of praying in person again. Gabriella is sensitive to their frustration and isolation — the pandemic separates her from her newly-pregnant wife Rebecca (Lauren Garcia) — but they don’t recognize her acting in their best interests when she’s protecting them from something microscopic.

Most of the congregation’s concerns are voiced by staff member Carleton Harris (Fred Pitts) and church elder Angie (Jean Forsman), who begin making suggestions to their pastor delicately (and vice versa) before they eventually abandon such pretense. What begin as slight nudgings for the traditional Easter gathering to carry on eventually devolves into the two constantly relaying the congregation’s anger at Gabriella’s “radical” move to close the church doors.

Gabriella also hears from us, the audience. The story is told through a series of Zoom meetings, and the play itself is performed over Zoom — not unlike most church services over the past year. Like good congregants, we’re primarily there to listen. But there are also times when our cameras (not mics) are activated and we’re encouraged to interact with the cast, particularly the pastor’s prayers to her flock, via Zoom’s text chat.

The final character to chime in is the one whom Gabriella can never hear respond: God. Although “the one” is something of a misnomer, as God is here presented as a Greek chorus (Akaina Ghosh, Linda Girón, J Riley, Jr.) who have more to say to the audience than to the pastor whom we expect to be their voice. The Almighty acknowledges to us that their mere existence is contradictory in an evidentiary world, but that such a thing is okay if one wants to find peace through belief. “Say this,” they implore us, “‘Faith does not come easily to me.’”

These are the strongest moments of Viñas’ script, balancing the frustrations of duty with practical necessity. Adding to the pressures of the COVID quarantine, Rebecca isn’t happy Gabriella moved them from their previous, much more tolerant church home. As guided by director Elizabeth Carter (who cameos as an unnamed church staffer), the play successfully captures the sense of hopelessness we’ve all felt after a year of staring at screens.

Not as strong is Viñas’ decision to breeze by the death of George Floyd. Though given lip service by Harris (played by Pitts, a Black actor), it seems all-but-forgotten by the next scene — something all the more noticeable when Gabriella receives harsh feedback about her anti-Trump statements. This omission neglects the historical importance of the church in social justice: Evangelicals of all races were incredibly important to the Civil Rights Movement, and their subsequent turn to white conservatism under Reagan stood in stark to that work and the scripture they preached. Meanwhile, many Black churches still take an active role in civil rights. For Feel the Spirit to zip past this issue strikes the wrong tone, particularly when the play’s title comes from the negro spiritual, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.”

Although the cast perform amicably all around, Maynez’s performance as Gabriella is a bit too subdued at times. She’s excellent in non-sermon scenes — particularly in one heartbreaking sequence in which she reads a letter from Angie — but the sermons themselves need a grand oration more becoming of a religious leader. Like the church, a theater is built for voices on stage to carry to the back row.

Appropriately, the play ends on a note of optimistic ambiguity: lasting decisions are made by the characters, but they’re no more certain of how the pandemic will end than we are now. The final lines are spoken by the God-chorus. attempting to reassure us that they’re still there, even as they implore us to listen to each other. Sure, that sort of thing sounds easy, but so did sheltering-in-place when we first heard about it.

GRADE: B-

Feel the Spirit | March 31 – April 11
1 hour 30 min. – no intermission
Online | $8 – $40 | shotgunplayers.org


Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist, and arts critic. He’s online at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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