Does God Exist On Stage? Theater and Religion
There are 10,000 religions in the world right now, although half the world’s population is “Abrahamic” (“either Jewish or Christian or Islamic”), Baba Brinkman tells us in The Rap Guide to Religion. His solo show at the SoHo Playhouse is one of a number of current works of theater in New York that touch upon religion, although with very different approaches: Some ridicule organized religion; others reflect specific doctrines, or try to reproduce the awe felt by believers; still others focus on characters engaged in some kind of internal struggle.
Brinkman uses humor, but not in mockery. He mentions specific faiths but only in passing. The awe he feels seems mostly for rap music. His is essentially a serious scientific, albeit rhythmic, inquiry into the nature of religion. Studies have shown, Brinkman tells us for example, that the more miserable you are, the more likely you are to be religious, although it’s not clear whether “suffering is causing religion or vice versa.” Other studies indicate that the more often you go to “your church, temple, mosque, whatever,” the more children you have—which suggests an evolutionary benefit to religion.
How would all his fascinating information go down with the religiously observant? In his opening rap, Brinkman acknowledges:
No way to please both believers and heathens
Try to at least offend for the right reasons
It’s clear that Brinkman puts himself in the heathen camp:
Judging by the atheistic, peaceful, democratic, and socially egalitarian areas of the world, especially Western Europe, civil institutions can protect us from exploitation just as well as religion if not better, and without the need for bizarre beliefs and rituals.
But both during the show, and in a talkback afterwards, he recognizes how intertwined religion and theater have been. “Throughout history,” he says during the show, “religious beliefs have been communicated through song and story, poetry, and verse.” He doesn’t mention (and doesn’t have to) that theater began as an integral part of religion; the plays by the Greek dramatists were written for holy festivals.
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?
In the talkback after the Rap Guide to Religion, which is Brinkman’s sixth “rap guide” (others have been to evolution, to the wilderness, to “the neuroscience of improv”), the rapper explained that he was drawn to the subject of religion because of its pageantry. “I wanted to evoke those moments,” he says.
His guest at the talkback was NYU professor Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. “Art and religion share the psychological state of transportation—being transported,” Haidt said. “We all love being taken out of ourselves, temporarily.”
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 publically on New York stages.
Marsha Norman said in a recent interview ‘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.’
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.
A comment from a reader of my review makes an important point:
How often as a person of faith have I watched films and theater that assumed lack of belief? Is it so hard when it goes the other way? This review makes me eager to see this play, which dares to bring spirituality into the plot without marginalizing or mocking it.